Regional Reviews: Chicago
Christmas with Elvis
Also see Christine's review of A Christmas Carol
So when I received an invitation to a new play called Christmas with Elvis, well that was a no-brainer. After ascertaining that the main space at Chopin Theatre was wheelchair-accessible (because the more used basement space is not), I was determined to see a show up there for the first time since the late House Theatre shut down. I really had no idea what I was about to see. I figured there would be Elvis music because how could there not be?–but otherwise? When the author, Terry Spencer Hesser, defines the play in his program note as both "a sassy comedy" and "an examination of loneliness," it's hard to know what to expect. Besides, Hesser has self-produced his script, which is often not a great sign.
Happily, the Dexter Bullard-directed Christmas with Elvis turns out to be a very well acted, inventively conceived, and beautifully directed production that deserves a place on the list of strong annual Chicago holiday offerings that fill our theaters each December. This high-concept play is both silly and poignant, original and schmaltzy (in the best Christmas ways), and as full of the magical spirit of the holidays as it is of sex, drugs and booze, and death. (This is not one to take the kids to see.)
The plotline: It's Christmas Eve, but Trudy (Brenda Barrie) is not celebrating. Instead, she is on a serious bender, mourning the loss of her latest relationship and reflecting on her own perennially miserable existence. Arriving home with a bottle in a paper bag, she finds that her empty refrigerator and cabinets devoid of anything not booze-related taunt her, as does the tiny fake tree only partially covered in lights, which is about as sad as the tree on "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Reflecting her mood, she puts "Blue Christmas" on the turntable–and then something happens. The iconic opening music of an Elvis in Vegas show starts playing loudly, dense smoke appears in the hallway, and out of it comes Elvis himself (Victor Holstein) in all of his spangled, jumpsuited, hip-swinging glory.
This is a very dead Elvis, though. He's a ghost who doesn't quite understand why he keeps getting summoned back to Earth to help put people on the right track. It is in fact a conundrum; the hard-drinking, pill-popping, pizza-gorging spirit doesn't actually scream "Christmas" or even "salvation." (More like "horrific overindulgence.") As the two of them start having a real conversation, though, we start seeing that they complement each other well, and maybe, just maybe, his presence will help her in some way.
Holstein (though his program bio doesn't mention it) is actually a very good Elvis impersonator. Throughout the show, he treats Trudy (and us, of course) with versions of many iconic songs. Sometimes he accompanies himself playing chords on a guitar or piano, sometimes he's a capella, sometimes he sings to a pre-recorded soundtrack, but his deep, rolling singing voice–even if he were not wearing a bedazzled white jumpsuit (costumer Lori Hall-Araujo has outdone herself)–instantly takes Trudy and us back in time. (Jeffrey Levin's sound design here is outstanding.) He happens to have died the day after she was born, so she has always felt somewhat connected to him. (By the way, Hesser does not try in any way to soften or mitigate the often-debauched way Elvis lived; we do get a clear description of many of the sadder things about a man who died at only 42.)
Barrie's Trudie is pretty much a mess from (way before) the start. She has a history of eating disorders and other psychological issues (which are all new for Elvis, who died in 1977), and in the present seems to have utterly given up, her alcohol abuse substituting for a life. (Eleanor Khan's scenic design, lit beautifully by Bridget Williams, fits this empty soul perfectly, but it does hold a few fun secrets.) Barrie begins with this out-of-control, self-destructive person wallowing in her own misery and gradually, throughout the two acts of the play, evolves her into someone we can recognize and care about. It's a fun contrast: as Elvis gets more over the top, Trudie comes down to earth. Still, it's the quieter, more honest, more contemplative moments between them that make the play really work, allowing whatever "it" the King has to work its magic on Trudy.
The play is a two-hander, but Hesser has embedded within it the sensation of multitudes, even if they appear to be the multitudes of hell. Bullard uses brilliantly unsettling line animation projections all over the set (projection designer Steve Labedz is almost a second director) to play off of what Beetlejuice lyricist Eddie Perfect called "the whole being dead thing." The spectral outlines and wraithlike arms and hands we see are a persistent reminder that this character has been dead for decades, at least partially due to his own proclivities. (The afterlife as he experiences it is a bit confusing: Elvis only knows whatever those who summon him tell him about life on earth, which means he is stunned to discover here that his daughter Lisa Marie married Michael Jackson and that she died earlier this year.) Labedz's projections add much depth to both his story and our perceptions of what might be likely for Trudy if this direction doesn't change. She may hate It's a Wonderful Life, but without her rock and roll self-indulgent Clarence she might not make it much longer.)
Bullard, a director that Hesser "dreamed of working with 30 years ago," does the playwright proud. Some of the staging–Trudy dancing with abandon on a futon while Elvis sings comes to mind–is just wonderful and exudes joy overlaid with the initial melancholy, leaving us with (dare I say it?) hope. This is the kind of play that could have gone either way, but it ultimately reinforces a magical sense of possibility that is always a major element in any Christmas show. Watching this play, you are transported beyond the world that Trudy has inhabited; you find ourself in one in which "your Elvis" pulls the magic out of the air and the snow starts to fall.
Christmas with Elvis runs through January 7, 2024, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit chopintheatre.com.