ELVIS IS ALIVE!” In a way, the tabloids scream the truth. This, the 11th summer since the King’s death at 42, has been one of the busiest of his entire afterlife. First the tabs reported that Elvis faked his funeral and moved to Kalamazoo, where he lives, bearded, balding and anonymous at 53. A controversy brewed over whether to portray Elvis as skinny or fat on a commemorative stamp. A radio station inaugurated an all-Elvis format, and a nationwide phone line opened to field and fuel Elvis-is-alive rumors. Now, to cash in on all the postmortem Presleymania, comes Elvis: An American Musical.
A $3 million, 50-song, multimedia homage to the King, the road show stars not one Elvis impersonator, not two Elvis impersonators, but three Elvii, each portraying Presley at various stages of girth and career. Terry Mike Jeffrey, 34, plays the young hillbilly cat. Elvis look-alike Johnny Seaton, 29, plays the hero in mid-career glory. And Julian Whitaker, 41, plays King Elvis the Fat. Unveiled in July at the Las Vegas Hilton, the two-hour tribute is in Vancouver this week before heading to Denver, Dallas and other U.S. cities. Sanctified by the Presley estate, the show presents the Elvis of legend, no warts—or drugs or food binges—at all.
Fans, of course, like it that way. “I’m an Elvis freak,” says Fran Wagner, 44, who came from Rocky Point, N.Y., to see the three Kings. “Any place he appears, I come.” Alas, she says, “No one can really create the illusion of Elvis for me. These actors are marvelous performers, but they don’t have the charisma Elvis had.”
Jim Stevens, an Elvis impersonator who flew in from Sacramento, Calif., to check out the competition, was impressed enough to momentarily put aside his personal credo (“I never judge another Elvis”) and venture an opinion. “There are some real bad Elvii out there,” says Stevens. “But these guys are good. Real good.”
Jeffrey, the young Elvis who also serves as the show’s music director, actually knew Presley. “I worshiped him,” says the Paducah, Ky., native. “I spent most of my childhood being reared on Elvis.” Jeffrey was 15 when he first met his idol at a show in Vegas. Some years later, as leader of a band that often played in Memphis, Jeffrey befriended the star and was among the few outsiders invited to a private funeral service at Graceland. Yes, he says, the dead Elvis was the real Elvis. “At one point we were left in the room with Presley’s body in the casket. I went over and touched his face, his side burns. They definitely weren’t wax,”
Unlike Jeffrey, a career musician, Whitaker had been content to pursue showbiz as a weekend Elvis. “There was a period when there was a lot of demand for Elvises, especially right after his death,” says Whitaker, who is on leave from his job at a Baltimore General Motors plant. Playing his boyhood idol, says Whitaker, can be “eerie. There are moments when I get chills. I feel somebody beside me or standing behind me. It spooks me out.”
The least reverential of the three Elvil is Seaton, a Maryland-born actor-singer who says he is not a “dyed-in-the-pompadour Elvis fanatic. I struggled for 10 years to break away from the Elvis image. People would always refer to me as the guy who looks and sounds like Elvis. When my agent told me about this gig, I figured it would finally provide a chance to use the stereotyping to my advantage.”
Surely he feels honored to portray the King? “I’m a fan, but I wouldn’t say I idolize him. The difference between me and the other guys,” Seaton says, “is that I consider this acting.”
—By Steve Dougherty, with Doug Lindeman in Las Vegas