Review: This Is Elvis, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes Moore

It may have been a rainy Monday night in 2018 Cardiff, but for everyone watching This Is Elvis at the New Theatre, it felt as though we had been transported back in time to watch the King shake, rattle and roll in the flesh. This new musical, presented by Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield, adapts, and celebrates, Elvis’ 1968 comeback special and his 1970 Las Vegas show, and five decades later the songs remain indestructible, incredible, and utterly unforgettable.

The first thing we’re greeted with is a striking red screen onto which is emblazoned an image of the King himself; his features are only hinted at, half his face obscured in shadow, but he’s still strikingly recognisable. It’s so bold that when you close your eyes the face remains like a camera flash after-image, like a Rorschach test, like the holy face imprinted on Veronica’s veil. Instantly, the image and its lasting effect on the eyes wordlessly articulates Elvis’ legendary status; that we only get impressions of the man he was, shaped by our own perception, experience and memory.

Having been bombarded with that stunning visual, when the curtain lifts it’s not Elvis we see, but rather other people – his manager, his band mates – talking about him. The spectral presence of Elvis’ image lingers, so that when he does finally arrive on stage he hauls along with him the baggage of everyone’s individual and collective ideas of who Elvis was. But from the moment Steve Michaels swaggered onto the stage in that legendary black leather ensemble, he was Elvis Presley.

We’ve all of us probably risked a ‘thank you very much’ Elvis impression at some point in our lives. But Steve Michaels’ performance was not an evocation, or even an impersonation – it was a complete inhabiting of character from the first moment to the last. His every vocal intonation, every gesture, every step and every sound was Elvis – even his hair, from root to tip, was every bit the King’s! Each and every song was varied and vibrant, capturing the essence of Elvis like lightning in a bottle. It was so spot on it veered into the uncanny valley at times, as if this was some living hologram of the man himself, here to bring a little joy into the lives of us Cardiffians on that rainy night. From his first line – ‘if you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place’ – to his last – ‘Goodnight everyone, I’ve been Tom Jones’ – Steve Michaels lived every second on stage like a man possessed, and when they announced at the end that Elvis had left the building, it felt as if we truly had lost the King all over again.

The first act portrays Elvis’ ’68 NBC comeback special, the emotional and professional aftermath of Elvis’ revived spirits and career, and his first (reluctant) foray into performing a Vegas show. Most tantalising of all, it humanises the King in a way I’d never seen before – who’d ever have though such an extraordinary man as Elvis Presley would feel anything as ordinary as nerves? Fear? Insecurity? Yet we get to see the legend shaking with anxiety at the thought of getting back on the stage after twelve years away from it. At the start, he seems as monumental as that striking image of him emblazoned on the red screen; but by the end of act 1, we realise that this was but one side of the man, magnified, writ large on history. Despite all the accoutrements of his iconic character, beneath it all he’s just a man; a gifted one, but one plagued with the same emotional turmoil that we mere mortals know only too well.

Though earnest and interesting, the first act felt a tad messy in parts, interspersing Elvis’ onstage performances with his offstage personal drama in a way which felt clumsy at times. But act 1 was rendered both necessary and fulfilling by the absolute beast of its second act, which solely, singularly recreates Elvis’ 1970 Vegas show (feat. the iconic white jumpsuit) from start to finish with nothing else in between. It roars along as both a riotous, self-contained concert experience, and as a personal and professional victory, a success of epic proportions that completes Elvis’ road to reviving his confidence and career.

The audience was responsive, raucous and often rowdy, dancing and singing and affectionately shouting out their love and appreciation for the tireless efforts of the performers. And who could blame us, with such iconic, incredible songs to soak up like ‘That’s All Right Mama’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’, ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘It’s Now or Never’ – to name but a very few. One of the highlights of act 1 wasn’t even an Elvis track but a stunning rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. ‘Love Me Tender’ was the only song which I felt fell a little flat, but it was sandwiched by such corkers as ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. As an avid, enthusiastic (if amateur) dancer myself, I was particularly enraptured by the more upbeat songs of the night, jiving away to the riotous tones of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘King Creole’. But even when they slowed it down for ballads like ‘In The Ghetto’,  ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, everyone in that theatre was utterly transfixed. ‘Burning Love’ seemed to be a more fitting final song than ‘Jailhouse Rock’, and the crowd reacted to it as such; the latter is a classic, don’t get me wrong, it just felt unsuitable for the finale. Having said that, using it as the climactic piece makes for a moment of pure circularity where the Elvis at the end of his life calls back to the Elvis who was just starting out. Narratively, it makes sense; musically, less so.

I was amazed – and vicariously exhausted – to watch every performer maintain such high levels of energy and quality throughout what looked to be an exhilarating but exhausting set. You can’t beat live music, but I have to commend these performers in particular for being amongst the best I’ve had the privilege of seeing live. I want to shout out especially to Misha Malcolm, Melissa Brown-Taylor, Katrina May and Chevone Stewart who added stunningly beautiful harmonies throughout the show, and enhanced every song by adding a simultaneously contemporary and ethereal quality. Everyone was incredible, from the guitars to the drums, the brass section to the singers, but I have to shout out to two standouts in particular: Niall Kerrigan on the lead guitar, of whom Chuck Berry would have been proud; and Steve Geere, who performed the dual roles of conductor (not an unclear upbeat in sight) and keyboardist – he was shredding them keys something fierce.

Transcendent, resplendent, incandescent. Whether you love Elvis or have never heard of him, this show is a must-see.

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