'Don't be scared to scream'
By Sherry Lucas
At Carlisle and Whitworth streets, Elvis has not left the building. And thankfully won't, for weeks yet.
That's the location of New Stage Theatre, where Idols of the King camps out through June 12, bringing the spirit of Mississippi's most beloved rags-to-riches, rock 'n' roll hero back in front of screaming fans.
Lance Zitron, in gold lame, black leather, white jumpsuit and other classic Elvis garb, gyrates his hips, pops up on his toes, snarls into the mike and takes care of business in this play, a musical tribute to the Tupelo native and King of Rock 'n' Roll, his legacy, his career and all those incredibly loyal fans.
Zitron, Memphis born and reared and now of Los Angeles, originated the role in the 1998 premiere at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock, and has acted Elvis in at least five productions of Idols of the King, including a U.S. tour.
In a format probably best described as Always Patsy Cline meets Greater Tuna, those fans are played by one pair of actors in a quick-change frenzy. New Stage veterans Jo Ann Robinson and Chris Roebuck play seven fans apiece, including each others' mother (offstage) and even one character's grandparents.
"It's really about them and about the influence he had on their lives," co-author Ronnie Claire Edwards (best known as Corabeth Godsey on The Waltons) said by phone from her Los Angeles home. "I had seen other things like it, I had seen Always Patsy Cline and I thought, oh, somebody should write that about Elvis. I can do that." Allen Crowe was her co-author.
It's the only play with the character of Elvis licensed and franchised by the Elvis Presley Estate.
"We see through different vignettes fans whose lives were touched by Elvis," guest director Peppy Biddy said. "When we see Elvis, it's mostly in their memory."
Zitron, in a gold suit that could provide wattage to power a small town or snug, custom-fit black leather, has his own costume changes to contend with. But at least he remains Elvis.
Robinson and Roebuck must shuck characters as well as clothes in rapid succession.
"It's a little nerve-racking," Robinson of Jackson said, laughing. "It's so fast. You want to do the same as with any character, know who the person is, do your homework. But it really is brain-fry to do seven different people."
Roebuck, of Ridgeland, said, "In the span of a song, you're out of one and into another."
"Physically and mentally," said Roebuck, who goes from the spinsterly piano teacher in purple Ruth to the flip flops and midriff top of Raynelle, hitchhiking to an Elvis concert when her boyfriend's Harley runs out of gas.
The play's point isn't just about Elvis the star. "Some scenes delve past Elvis the singer and show Elvis the person, what a good guy and what he did for people. It's just an entertaining fun show, Lance is a great singer, but at the same time you see the other side of Elvis."
"The humanity," Robinson said.
For his part, Zitron, with a satisfied smile, said, "It's good to be the King.
"It's a lot of fun to try to capture the different sides of Elvis. I think that's what made him so successful and dynamic, those incongruities. He was a rebel who loved his mama."
In Idols of the King, he plays Elvis through the years, and in the best light, in songs that range all the way from Blue Suede Shoes to Burning Love, from young Elvis ("wild and raucous with a lot of thrashing") to later ("more controlled") and lastly in Las Vegas ("karate at the end").
Zitron's first Elvis-ish stint was a string of radio spots he wrote and recorded for Piggly Wiggly in Memphis. He dropped into that can't-miss drawl, recounting "Our meat's tender" and "Our buns are so soft and fresh."
"That's where I first got paid for hoking it up, before I really knew how cool Elvis was. I thought, ooh, maybe I should study this guy and I became an instant fan."
In tapes of early Elvis, "You saw fear, anticipation, anger, release, joy — you saw all these in a few seconds. It was raw. Something very new. Whoa! I've never seen anything like that."
Zitron's role in the play Hound Dog in Los Angeles earned him a nomination of Best Leading Male Actor by LA Weekly, which he believes may have snagged him the audition for Idols of the King.
Zitron played the role of Lenny Bruce for Entertainment Television's Mysteries and Scandals and has just finished shooting the soon to be released movie Unidentified. He recently wrote, directed and starred in Vaudeville They Think of Next? in Palm Springs with his fiancee, who choreographed the show.
Portraying Elvis' magnetism and catching the reaction of adoring fans is fun, he said. "Don't be scared to scream at this performance. I love it, I feed off the audience." In one of the wilder moments onstage, a lady ran up and stuffed $10 in his pants.
"Now you know the difference between Elvis and me. I don't have security."
The band for Idols of the King, onstage throughout the show, includes music director Tom Jenkins, Big Earl Bishop (bass), Sherman Lee Dillon (guitar) and Dwight Ross (percussion).
New Stage staff predict a winner with this show and are pitching their upcoming 40th anniversary season subscription sales during it.
If Idols of the King ticket sales are strong, there's a possibility it will be held over, artistic director Patrick Benton said.
Benton said, "It's a show that brings a lost legend back to life for one night only.
"Or in this case, two weeks."