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Tuesday, 26 March 2013 13:06

If I Were You (and other Elvis Presley songs)

Written by Steve Callahan
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If I Were You (and other Elvis Presley songs)

Elvis Presley lives! And lives and lives and lives . . . Each year Washington University’s A. E. Hotchner playwriting competition serves as muse to budding playwrights among the Wash U. student body.

Full-length plays, one-acts, and ten-minute plays are submitted. All entries receive a public reading in the fall, then one winner is selected for further development ending with a full production in the spring semester.

Of course the quality varies. I’ve seen really fine plays arise from this competition—and I’ve seen several that were . . . well, not-so-fine. This year’s winner was If I Were You (and other Elvis Presley songs), by Leah Barsanti. It deals with the all-too-familiar conflict between teen-agers and their parents—but there’s a twist. Young Brett Bramlett, rankling under the rule of his domineering father, dreams of becoming an Elvis impersonator. He and a couple of his high-school buddies are secretly taking lessons from Tommy, a washed-up has-been of an Elvis impersonator (who has a bit of a drinking problem). Tommy is just making a quick and easy buck from these gullible star-struck kids.

Brett’s kid sister, Sadie, wonders why her brother won’t tell her where he’s always going in the evening, and she finally sneaks out to follow him. She discovers the secret Elvis workshop and insists on being included. If Brett doesn’t get her into the workshop she’ll tell their father about Brett’s dropping out of school to follow this dream career.

Tommy, the teacher, just sees this as another chance to make a buck, and soon Sadie and two of her friends are signed up to learn to be—not Elvis impersonators, but Priscilla Presley impersonators. (The girls, as one might expect, are there not really to learn to do Priscilla, but because they have crushes on the boys.)

Throughout all this we are treated to a feast of recorded Elvis Presley, as well as to Elvis impersonations; some are comic; some, by Hal Matthews as Brett, are spot on target and very deftly done.

And now for the weird twist: in a one-on-one session Tommy discovers that Brett knows details of Elvis’ life that he simply could not know. Somehow Brett is truly channeling Elvis; he is indeed becoming Elvis!

The student cast all give competent performances. Hal Matthews is an energetic, handsome, magnetic stage presence, and the young man has obviously done the hard work necessary to master all the nuances—even the vocal tone—of Elvis. Jamie Gottlieb, as Sadie, is another bright presence on the stage. She convincingly plays younger than her age, and her sibling dynamic with Matthews is very true.

Samantha Ligeti, Anna Richards, Harry Kronfeld and Eric Gustafson do good work as the teen-aged friends. (Well, Kronfeld mugs just a little in his “Fonzie” role; Gustafson, as the boy whose voice hasn’t broken, plays falsetto for all it’s worth—and perhaps for a bit more than it’s worth; and a couple times Miss Richards gets just a bit cutesy in playing younger than her real age.)

It’s always a challenge for young actors to play ages other than their own. Erik Kuhn did lovely work as Tommy, but without many more years of life he could hardly be expected to convince us of the seedy shabbiness that failure and drink bring to a one-time performer.

This age problem is most obvious in the roles of the parents, which are played by Charley Cotton and Katie Jenneret. And here we see one of the greatest weaknesses in the play. These characters, as written, are pure cliché. The mother, for the most part, is constrained to dinner-table lines like, “How was your day?” and “Have some dessert.” The father is the barely two-dimensional cartoon of a weak man trying to act the role of a domineering patriarch. His screaming sessions with his son are simply shallow. A really fine mature veteran actor could use skill and personal gravitas to rise above this script, but with a freshman actor there is simply no place for the script’s flaws to hide.

Nevertheless it was an enjoyable evening with some most attractive performances.

"If I Were You (and other Elvis Presley songs)", played in the Hotchner Studio Theatre at Wash U. from March 21 through March 24.


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