The impact of Elvis Presley on American culture is so massive that you could spend an entire lifetime studying one phase of his career. Volumes have been written about his burst of brilliance at Sun Records, his post-Army move into kitschy films, his brief artistic comeback in the late 1960s, and his descent into Las Vegas irrelevance and drug abuse in the 1970s.
But there are two musical productions being performed in the Upstate right now that look at Elvis through very different prisms, and it’s an intriguing thought that one could go see two very different versions of The King on two consecutive nights.
At Centre Stage, the musical in question is “Million Dollar Quartet,” a dramatization of the December 1956 night when Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins jammed together at the legendary Sun Studios. Through the use of flashbacks and classic songs like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” the Tony-award winning musical tells the story of how Sun founder Sam Phillips discovered and nurtured each of these phenomenal talents, and also why they all eventually left his label.
For this production, director Glenda ManWaring wanted all of the main actors to be real-life musicians, and she wanted her Elvis (played by T.J. Jones) to have none of the polish of his middle years or the cynicism of his later life.
“This is set when they’re all young,” ManWaring says. “This is when they first started out. So you see a true and honest Elvis. There’s no façade; there’s no pretense. We see an endearing and true Elvis. There was an innocence I wanted to play, because he’s been played elsewhere as very hard and he’s been portrayed very harshly, depending upon the stage of life they’re portraying him in.”
At the same time, though, she says she wanted a slight hint at where Elvis was headed. “He’s just at the beginning stages of the decay of his innocence,” she says. “T.J. Jones does a great job in letting us see his turmoil, because people are trying to use and abuse him, and he just wants to be Elvis and play his music.”
It’s a more intimate, personal portrayal of an icon, whereas the second musical, the Mill Town Players production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which will be performed at the Pelzer Auditorium, takes a more distant, metaphorical approach. The story focuses on an “Elvis-like” performer named Conrad Birdie (Drake King), whose upcoming visit to the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, has the whole community in an uproar.
Birdie, who has the gold lamé suit and slicked-back swagger of Elvis in his late ’50s prime, is something of a distant figure in “Bye Bye Birdie,” acting almost as a cypher upon whom teenage fan Kim (played by the 15-year-old Meris Privette), casts her romantic fantasies while publicist Albert Peterson (Mark Wiles) and his secretary Rosie Alvarez (Meredith Woodard) try to keep any hint of scandal from tarnishing Conrad’s squeaky-clean image.
It’s a portrait of a rock ‘n’ roll rebel turned celebrity, already isolated behind his image. “We learn little snippets about this character,” says director Reed Halvorson. “You don’t really get to know who this person is as he pulls into Sweet Apple, Ohio, and throws everything into a tizzy.”
Halverson says that there’s a cloud that eventually envelops superstars like Birdie or, indeed, Presley.
“There’s a perception of who a celebrity is,” he says, “and people deal with that differently. If it’s a musical celebrity, people think, ‘They sing these great songs, so they must be wonderful human beings.’ But they’re normal people with their own flaws. Rosie and Albert are trying to cover that up and make sure Conrad is seen as this idol.”
The Mill Town Players present “Bye Bye Birdie”
Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St., Pelzer
July 14–Aug. 6
Thursday–Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.
Centre Stage presents “Million Dollar Quartet”
July 20–Aug. 12
Thursday–Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.