Elvis Presley gyrated recklessly before smashing a foam guitar onto the stage at the climax of “Heartbreak Hotel,” erm, pardon, “Ringing That Old Bell,” a parody on Elvis’ aforementioned hit.
“In the show we’ll use a real guitar,” whispered director bree valle, head of Cuesta College Drama Department, as she sat curled up in her front row seat at the Cuesta College Cultural and Performing Arts Center during a recent rehearsal. “They (Cuesta’s Technical Theatre Practicum) are building a new guitar for each night.”
“Refried Elvis,” a comedic twisted take on Elvis’ career about those convinced he was “the most dangerous deviant in this country,” is making its debut Thursday. In its view, the League for Moral Decency (based off several real groups) is attempting to combat the “wicked beast” of Elvis Presley, and the FBI believes that Elvis is “infecting the innocent youth of this country.” It weaves between the two groups’ zany plans to foil Elvis, culminating in a theatrical kidnapping. (For the record, the FBI never investigated Elvis, although concerned citizens asked it to do so.)
“He is, this Elvis, neither man nor beast. He is contagion,” preaches the head of the League for Moral Decency, “His disease is capable of flight. Straight from his mouth into your virgin soul.”
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The script, written by Cal Poly Department of Theater and Dance lecturer Philip Valle, bree valle’s husband, spins Elvis’ story into a humorous realm of fantasy, while maintaining a remarkable amount of historical accuracy. Philip Valle has written numerous other scripts, including six that have been performed locally.
Although the script is based on real events and dialogue, Philip Valle said he adapted it to be “a little sexier.”
Two weeks from opening, in typical thespian fashion, the theater was chaos — a frenzy of mic checks, missing costumes and forgotten stage directions. Bree valle fluctuated between shouting notes from the audience and running on stage to fix props.
Projected images play a key role in setting the scene; short clips and photos are often used as backdrops. A collection of more than 40 wigs are used during the show; each actor changes wigs about five or six times during the performance.
All of the names in the script, with the exception of Elvis, have been changed, with a blatant nod to the original identity.
The play is littered with hits of the time — the lyrics of many rewritten due to copyright regulations. “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Hard Headed Woman” and “All Shook Up” are among the songs that weave their way into the script with scrambled lyrics.
An onstage three-piece band composed of electric guitar, double bass and percussion provides the background beat necessary for any Elvis spectacle.
A self-proclaimed Elvis fan since he was young, Tony Costa, 24, plays the show’s lead heartthrob. Sporting a pair of exceptional sideburns grown for the part, Costa plays primarily a young 1956 Elvis at the pinnacle of his newfound fame. The show touches on other eras of Elvis, a transformation Costa describes as “pompadour to lion’s mane and from sideburns to muttonchops.”
“I want to make sure that even though we’re over the top ... the guy is there, and that people can see the guy, who he really was,” Costa said.
“Dance That Rock,” a rendition of “Jailhouse Rock,” is Costa’s favorite song to perform in the show, although he acknowledges that the tune’s high notes also make it the most ambitious.
“This show is just great. It’s farcical, it’s hilarious, it’s goofy, it’s nutty,” said Allison King, 22, who plays Sparkle Jackson, Elvis’ love-interest in the show. Sparkle is based off rockabilly idol Wanda Jackson of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Elvis and Wanda Jackson were briefly sweethearts on and off again around 1956, King gushed. Wanda Jackson’s father was her manager and he used to accompany the two on dates, King said. Elvis also gave Wanda Jackson his ring, King added, which to this day the 78 year old can be seen wearing on a chain around her neck.
“It’s (the show) based in reality in the Elvis sense and the general theme of the old generation versus the new generation,” King said. “The new generation is just coming up and tearing it down and really gaining their strength and their stride.”
Another character portrayed with detailed accuracy is The General, a spinoff of The Colonel, Elvis’ manager, whose own love interest was making a quick buck. The Colonel used to make a profit selling “I hate Elvis” pins alongside “I love Elvis” buttons.
“Is it true that you take 50 percent of everything Elvis earns?” a reporter shouts at The General in an early scene. “No, that’s not true at all,” The General responds, “He takes 50 percent of everything I earn.”
Two weeks before opening night, Philip Valle was still re-working the show, adjusting lines and writing new scenes.
“Up until the last day, we’re doing re-writes and handing changes to the actors, which drives them a bit bonkers,” Philip Valle said. “I can throw a new page or a new scene at them a couple hours before rehearsal.” Valle described himself and bree as “process people,” less focused on the final product. He added that they have a familiar shorthand way of working together. This is his fifth show that his wife has directed. “We trust each other mentally with each other’s work.”
Philip Valle said that the actors always get the final say. If a line feels unnatural or awkward to an actor, he works with them to make the changes. “And you never fall in love with anything,” he said, jokingly. “That’s probably going to be the thing that’s cut.”
Although the general background of the script remains the same from initial drafts, Valle said that he wrote the characters based on the actors available to him. He said he was “trapped” in a delightful way by what the piece could do.
Philip Valle said that writing the piece made him sympathetic to Elvis in a way he never was before. While most people assume Elvis had it easy, Philip Valle said he imagines that wasn’t the case. Delving into his life and some of his struggles, Philip Valle noted that Elvis was profoundly terrified of his success.
Energy in the theater during the rehearsal was high as actors ran through lines and practiced parts of their favorite songs off stage. And somehow, between the lost costumes and missed cues, bree valle encountered a scene that didn’t need any notes.
“It’s amazing — he sounds just like Elvis Presley,” she said in a quiet voice, mesmerized as she watched Costa onstage crooning “Viva Las Vegas.” “It’s unbelievable.”
Danielle Ames: 805-781-7902
Thursday through Saturday 7:30 p.m. each day; 2 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday
Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College
$15 with discounts for students and children