LAS VEGAS, NV. Viva Las Vegas! Since getting back to writing regularly for the blog I need stuff to write about. So, we took a short road trip to the Capital City of Second Chances which has resurrected Elvis Presley and given him a posthumous second chance at the hotel he made famous starting in 1969. Put on your favorite Elvis tunes and ride along with us.
I have heard a lot of scuttlebutt about all the changes and had to investigate it myself. The thing about other people’s opinions is they are other people’s opinions. It was time to check out the hype and controversy surrounding Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino’s new Elvis exhibit and show. I wanted to form my own opinion from a firsthand experience because everything I’ve read so far are from reporters just doing their job without any emotional connection to Elvis and with very limited historical knowledge about the King of Rock & Roll. It hasn’t been favorable prose. There were a couple positive reviews from fans which were dappled with clichéd phrases such as “there is no one like Elvis,” “as good as Elvis,” “as sexy as Elvis,” etc. and I give those critiques one big, obvious, DUH!
I am not an Elvis expert, but I’m a whole lot more knowledgeable than the average reporter earning his paycheck and I’m an admirer with an emotional connection to him. Besides, I have my Pompadour partner and adoring wife who researches Elvis history every day for our Facebook page. One hundred percent accuracy is always her goal. In my loving opinion, Jeanne-Marie is an objective, Elvis expert.
Our grand adventure started out a bit challenging when another one of our water pipes sprung a pin hole leak under the house. The house my father-in-law, Monty, built in 1947 is showing it’s age and my neglect. A minor issue, and it put us behind an hour from our schedule but we arrived at The Orleans with time to spare. The hotel/casino was recommended by a good friend who frequents Vegas and it was a good recommendation.
We hit Fremont Street on Monday night to see Tyler James and the Memphis Experience rock the licentious crowd inebriated by booze and with other debauchery on their minds. It is Sin City and there is no moral restraint other than what the law restricts. It gives real meaning to the Vegas catch phrase “what happens in Vegas; stays in Vegas” unless it’s an STD. Of course, none of this mattered to the hundreds of people who crowded around the stage singing, dancing, spilling their booze and rocking to the iconic songs of Elvis expertly sung by James. Tyler James and the Memphis Experience is one of the best ETA shows in Vegas and it’s free. It was a delicious appetizer for the main course: the Elvis Experience show, starring Martin Fontaine.
I’ve got a lot to say before getting to my review of the Elvis Experience show. Now that I’ve seen it, I get it. I get exactly what Mrs. Presley’s contradictory statement meant about actor versus ETA. She just didn’t articulate it very well and got a few jumpsuits ruffled in Elvis fandom. The Elvis Experience is a stage, theatrical, musical reenactment of a 1972 Elvis concert complete with vintage instruments. All the musicians/singers are in appropriate 1970’s clothing and hairstyles and each one is introduced by the name of the character they’re portraying. The musician portraying Charlie Hodge is short just like the late Mr. Hodge. The whole illusion would not work if Martin Fontaine came out on stage and said, “Hi, I’m Martin Fontaine; your Elvis Tribute Artist for the night” because it is not a tribute show. It is a 90-minute play and a play requires actors and that is what Mrs. Presley meant by her statement.
An exact and faithful reproduction of the music, the spirit, and the magic…The Elvis Experience.
We’re snapping at semantics: Elvis Tribute Artist, Elvis impersonator, actor, Elvis Tribute Actor. Mrs. Presley and Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) have effectively redefined what it means to portray Elvis and they have put the word out there about who they want to portray Elvis. They want actors, and those professional ETAs who are paying attention have already changed their résumés from ETA to actor/singer/musician. If the professional ETA* wants to capture EPE’s attention and become the next actor for a five week run on their payroll to portray Elvis in their show in Vegas, on his stage, the pro ETA will need to change accordingly. Don’t be stubborn. It’s just a word and words are more powerful than stubborn tradition and pays a lot more.
If you’re still not convinced EPE wants actors to be Elvis, then read their Q & A interview with Martin Fontaine. Read it carefully and notice the word tribute is not used once, but words like actor, stage actor, portray, and portrayal are used throughout the piece. The message couldn’t be any clearer.
Does it really matter? It matters if you want to play Elvis for EPE. Otherwise, call yourself by whatever label is befitting for your efforts to keep the memory of Elvis alive. Very few will rise to the level of talent Graceland/EPE is seeking, but every Elvis Tribute Artist plays an important role that Graceland/EPE needs to find new actors. Every ETA contributes to the Elvis legacy. I read once, or heard it in a conversation long ago, fans would rather have a bad Elvis impersonator than no Elvis at all. There’s a lot of truth to that statement.
The fact is, whatever you call them, ETAs work very hard to perfect their portrayal. They’re also huge Elvis fans and respect him. Kurt Brown, president of Brown Productions, Priscilla Presley’s Perception.
Personally, I see Elvis in every ETA/Actor who is captured in the lens of my camera, but the Elvis Experience really brings Elvis alive on stage, especially for someone like me who never had the opportunity to see one of his concerts. Set in 1972**, the concert begins with the familiar BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM rhythmic drum beat from Sprach Zarathustra. The spotlights flash erratically over the stage and audience as Sprach Zarathustra transitions to the horns repeatedly trumpeting the reprise foreshadowing Elvis’ anticipated entrance.
Martin Fontaine enters from stage left wearing the Blue Swirl jumpsuit with cape and looks outstanding as he moves through the motions and metamorphoses into Elvis. The illusion is on and we go back in time. J.D. Sumner and the Stamps are there with the Sweet Inspirations and Kathy Westmoreland, backing up Elvis. Jerry Scheff, James Burton, John Wilkinson, Glen Hardin, Charlie Hodge, Ronnie Tutt, and Joe Guercio with his orchestra are all alive, young, and rocking the stage with Elvis as he sings the iconic songs we all enjoy. The audience cheers, screams, and applauses as the Elvis charisma magnetizes them and draws them into the concert experience.
Elvis sings the songs we all have come to love like Suspicious Minds, American Trilogy, Hound Dog. Particularly touching is Don’t Cry Daddy as family photos and home movies are played on the movie screen behind the band. It’s cleverly scripted to remind us that other than the fans, Priscilla and Lisa Marie were the two most important people in his life regardless of how things ended. I don’t know how Mrs. Presley and Lisa Marie could have held it together on opening night when they attended the concert. I misted up and I’m just a fan.
The musical is well scripted. All the players keep in character to maintain the integrity of the 1972 concert reenactment. Fontaine looks great in the jumpsuit and knows how to expertly apply his makeup which gives him a strong resemblance to Elvis at certain angles. His voice neither has the range of Elvis nor does he always sound like him, nevertheless he sounds great. Honestly, he doesn’t sound much like Elvis with most of the songs, but the arrangement of the songs are accurate to the way Elvis sang each one. Since this is a musical, Fontaine only needs to occasionally sound like Elvis to give the audience enough of an illusion to make them believe he is the King of Rock & Roll. Lastly, he has the stage movements perfected from the small facial movements to the grandiose movements of Polk Salad Annie and You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.
The show must be approached with the understanding it is a staged, theatrical, musical production and a reenactment of a 1972 concert. On those merits alone, it rocks, and can be especially appreciated. If you’re looking for Elvis go to YouTube or watch That’s the Way It Is, but if you’re looking to be entertained by the spirit and magic of Elvis, then the Elvis Experience is the show to see. Keep an open mind and you just might see Elvis. I did.
We want to give a special thank you to George who is one of the ushers who spoke with a Graceland representative which allowed us to take pictures of the show. I think the Graceland representative’s name is Gary, so thank you, Gary. Thank you to all the Elvis fans and ETAs/Actors who keep the life, music, legacy, and memory of Elvis alive.