State Theatre, February 9


“It’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get…” No, not ready. Put the blue suede shoes back in the box. When an earlier incarnation of this Elvis Presley bio-musical played in Sydney last year, it wasn’t deemed ready for review by its creators. Now, after a revamp and a Melbourne season, they think it is. It’s not.

An overly-excited cast. Photos: Nicole Cleary.

There’s no great shame in that. Musicals are fiendishly difficult, which is why so few – the likes of A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Chicago and Cabaret – even approach the foothills of perfection. Ascending such heights when you’ve cornered yourself into a jukebox musical – and you can hardly write about Elvis without using his hits – is that much harder, because the songs no longer help convey story and character.

That load must be carried entirely by the dialogue. Alas US writers Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti have routinely chosen the emotional shortcut of sentimentality (when grittiness was sometimes an option), and then when they shoot for greater intensity, the show becomes overwrought, so any soul-searching seems like a send-up. They desperately need to rethink this, because currently the actors don’t really have characters to portray, just lines to deliver and songs to sing.

Elvis Presley was not only one of the last century’s greatest singers, he was a natural charismatic who revolutionised the expression of male sexuality in performance. He was also a complex, vulnerable man whose interests were poorly served by his grasping manager, Colonel Parker.

So there was a story here, alright, but this isn’t it. (Nor did Baz Luhrman’s 2022 movie get it right.) The writers skim across surfaces, rather than digging deeper into motivations. Director Alister Smith’s program note suggests an intention to use the massive challenge of Elvis’s 1968 comeback TV special as their fulcrum. Whereas what’s actually on the stage is a bald and rather linear biography with some flashbacks. Tension is raised by shouting rather than by the articulation of conflict, and Elvis’s substance abuse is largely airbrushed out of history.

Rob Mallett and cast. Photos: Nicole Cleary. Top photo: Ken Leanfore.

With the text not doing the job, the weight on the shoulders of the actor playing Elvis is immense. The good news is that Rob Mallett has the voice: a velvety baritone with what, in the 1950s (and among whites), was that revolutionary edge of libidinous excitement. But, unlike some of the other jukebox musicals about pop stars, the voice is not enough with Elvis. You need something of the charisma, looks, sexuality and complexity. Mallett can’t supply these ingredients in sufficient quantity, although he’s way ahead of most of those curious anthropological mutants, the Elvis impersonators.

Noni McCallum acquits herself well as Presley’s mum, given some of her lines. Ian Stenlake as Colonel Parker is the only actor you believe when the stakes are raised. The finest performance is actually a bit-part: Kirby Burgess as the gorgeous Ann-Margret during Elvis’s career-sapping movie-making phase. She oozes the female equivalent of what we need from Mallett in male guise, and is gifted some of the best of Michael Ralph’s choreography.

Music Director Daniel Puckey’s band is sharp enough, but misses that raw 1950s sound. Isaac Lummis’s costumes are much more convincing, and along with some of the dancing (including the striking use of 45rpm singles during All Shook Up) and a committed ensemble, help provide some of the fizz that masks the flatness of the storytelling. The latter is emphasised by the creators’ uncertainty how to end it.

Until March 9.