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Arts & Entertainment

Review: Elvis '68

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 11

By Ben Miles

Elvis Presley was a social and cultural phenomenon. His swiveling hips, magnetic charisma, and intuitive gift for rhythm, Blues, and Gospel made him a major musical innovator and earned him the title of the King of Rock ‘n Roll. But after The Beatles’ meteoric rise and the British Invasion, the sixties seem to belong to another sort of musical entertainer.

Then came 1968, a year of turmoil – the Vietnam War was raging, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were each assassinated, and there was riotous upheaval at Chicago’s Democratic Convention. But also it was the year of artistic reinvention for the groundbreaking and uniquely American entertainer once praised and often condemned as Elvis the Pelvis.

At Fullerton’s Maverick Theater – through June 14, we get the whole true story behind Elvis’ so-called “’68 Comeback Special.” Written and directed by the Maverick’s founding artistic director, Brian Newell, “Elvis ’68” chronicles the nervousness of Elvis Presley appearing before a live (television) audience for the first time in years, the uncertainty behind the production process, and the legacy left from that daring TV exploit. It is an unexpectedly gripping tale that puts today’s audiences in the surrogate seats of that Burbank studio audience, some 46 years ago.

With consummate musicianship – Jack Majdecki on guitar; Floyd Bland on bass; and Sho Fujieda on drums – and harmonious back-up singers (Annamaria Mayer and Lauren Shoemaker with a rotating roster of support vocalist, including Kari Kennedy, Amy Glinskas, Janell Henry), the show is set in motion by a naturalistic Frank Tyron playing TV director Steve Binder. Tyron’s Binder serves as the sturdy narrator of the story. Through him we learn of the varying visions held of this 1968 TV special. Through Binder’s eyes we also get a glimpse of the down-to-earth and “egoless” individual that Elvis actually seemed to be. And who knew that when it came to alcohol, Elvis Presley was a teetotaler?

Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker wanted what would amount to a Christmas special (though the program was filmed in June of that year, it wasn’t aired until December 3). And though Elvis did perform one holiday song, his signature “Blue Christmas,” ostensibly the program was a showcase for Elvis to revisit his founding hits, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” as well as some of his root sounds like “That’s All Right” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” What’s more, the TV special functioned as a platform to introduce new, never-before-heard songs such as the melodic “Memories” and the rollicking “Guitar Man.”

Casey Ryan as Elvis Presley shoulders the burden of playing one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century. Not only does Ryan succeed in capturing the look of Elvis, circa 1968 (helped by the clever costuming of Curtis Jerome and Heidi Newell), he also evokes the spirit of Elvis’ music while emulating the distinctive, karate-inspired musical moves made famous by the King. Ryan transcends the Elvis imitator mode by being authentically and fully present on stage and genuinely connecting with the audience. Plus he has the vocal chops to turn an audience of theatergoers into a group of Elvis acolytes, no small feat.

For Elvis fans young and old, “Elvis ’68” is a sweet treat of a show. Hugely engaging and rife with nostalgia for those of us who remember witnessing the event back in the day, “Elvis ’68” is a show for anyone and everyone interested in the evolution of popular music and the singular sensation that was and is Elvis Presley.

“Elvis ’68” continues at the Maverick Theater through June 14. The Maverick Theater is located at 110 East Walnut, Fullerton. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sunday shows are at 6 p.m. For reservations, call (714) 526-7070. For online ticketing and further information, visit