Theatre in Review: Attack of the Elvis Impersonators (Theatre Row)
To begin with, the above title is misleading. There is no attack and there is only one Elvis impersonator. His name is Drac Frenzie, and, as the show begins, he is a rock star fronting a band named Heavy Bone, currently appearing on the Cracked Cranium Tour. Fans are known as Boneheads and they thrill to songs with lyrics like these: "My gallbladder has another giant stone/And Satan keeps calling on the telephone/Ev'ryone I meet is somebody's clone/It ain't heavy metal/It's Heavy Bone!" Believe it or not, this lyric refers to more than one aspect of the plot. For one thing, some of Drac's fans wish that he would reunite with his old band, The Screaming Gallbladders from Hell. One of them is the Anti-Christ.
The creators of Bye Bye Birdie can rest easy; Attack of the Elvis Impersonators is never going to steal their thunder. Actually, one of the questions hanging over this rather desperate entertainment has to do with its age: Lory Lazarus, author of the libretto and music, seems to think we live in a world where teenagers still scream their heads off over bands like Mötley Crüe. "Does it make you smile to know that half the kids in America dress like you?" a reporter asks Drac, seemingly unaware that the world has moved on and the pop charts are now ruled by the likes of Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, The Chainsmokers, and rappers like Kendrick Lamar. Then again, this is a show that imagines America is populated by millions still mourning Elvis Presley's untimely death in 1977.
Indeed, Drac's success has turned to ashes, because his heart's desire is to become an Elvis impersonator. This all but causes a national frenzy when Drac, appearing at his hometown arena in full Elvis drag, performs a number titled "Viva Milwaukee." Meanwhile, he pines for Prissy Bordeaux, who, despite the name, isn't a Bond girl but a reporter for an online service called Zonk TV. (Annoyingly, she is constantly called "the queen of digi-tal.") She returns the favor and stars, dressing like Ann-Margret in her Viva Las Vegas days. Anyway, everyone turns up at Graceland, where, courtesy of a locket with magic powers, Drac is apparently possessed by the spirit of Elvis. I see I've left out of the magic Elvis masks -- in fact, they rather make their wearers look like Frankenstein, but never mind -- which turn fans into ecstatic members of a religion known as Hound Dog. (There is a great deal of howling onstage.) And then -- because, at this point, continuity is out the window, anyway -- yes, there's the Anti-Christ, otherwise known as Prince Oonga Boonga Moonga Sahna, who interrupts his world-domination plan to urge Drac to return to his heavy metal roots. Prince O.B.M.S. sings lyrics like "The world is a cotton ball! I'm the boll weevil! Spreading my evil! Causing upheaval!"
As Jean Kerr once wrote about a play she didn't like, If this sounds funny, I'm not telling it right. As the previous paragraphs should make stunningly clear, Attack of the Elvis Impersonators bids fair to become the Plan Nine From Outer Space of musical theatre, with Lazarus as its own Ed Wood. The plot is incoherent, the songs are unamusing, and despite the best efforts of the director, Don Stephenson, the action lurches from one mystifying development to the next. The show's meager list of strengths includes Eric Sciotto, as Drac, who attacks his terrible material with a certain verve, and Laura Woyasz, as Prissy, who sings sufficiently appealingly that it would be nice to hear her under different circumstances. Otherwise, bring on the Anti-Christ.
Paul Tate dePoo III's set features an upstage wall that suggests a space-age rendition of an airport lounge; the walls are decorated with musical staves. Shawn Duan's projections -- which include still imagery and video sequences starring Prissy, the Anti-Christ, and others -- are, sad to say, totally in the spirit of the show, but their execution cannot be faulted. Tracy Christensen's costumes are all over the place: The outfits worn by Matt, Drac's friend, appear to be filched from the closet of Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero, and at one point Prissy appears in a costume eerily evocative of Jodie Foster's teenager hooker outfit from Taxi Driver; surely, this can't be what was intended. Travis McHale's lighting features plenty of color changes and chases in an attempt at keeping the numbers lively. Josh Liebert's sound design, aside from Drac's purposely deafening opening number, is a model of clarity.
Every season or two we get a show like this, with a vaguely science-fiction premise and a dedication to rooting around in the pop culture detritus of another era. This is the 2017-18 entry. If we all pray very hard -- perhaps to the Anti-Christ? -- we won't get another for some time to come. -- David Barbour