Elvis is still in the building

2014 BIG STAGE SPECTACULAR/ Damian Mullin and Mike Tsama
Renaissance Theatre, Kew

As proven time and again, by cultural icons from James Dean to Diana, Princess of Wales, a timely death can be a great career move in the popularity stakes. None has done it with the stellar success of Elvis. His death on 16 August, 1977 spawned an unparalleled level of insatiable adulation and a burgeoning industry to feed it and of it. The anniversary of Elvis’ death is commemorated annually with an international festival in Memphis, USA, Elvis’ hometown, and increasingly around the globe. In recent years, thanks mainly to the Parkes Elvis Festival’s enticing the local Elvis fandom out of its closet, Australia has enjoyed a steadily growing piece of the Elvis action and it seems that too much Elvis just isn’t enough.

Melbourne’s first Elvis Tribute Week Festival (August 9-17), started on a note of great promise with a concert starring two of Australia’s best professional Elvis tribute artists (ETAs), Mike Tsama and Damian Mullin.


The Memphis Cat Sings


Mullin opens his first songset

Staged in the modest surroundings of the 420-seat Renaissance Theatre, Kew High School, the show was big, in every sense, with a four-hour running time, packed with megawatts of entertainment and showcasing more songs than you could rattle off from memory.

Tsama and Mullin have been billed together before, and because each covers a different Elvis era, they work as a good fit, offering abundant variety and welcome contrast. Tsama specialises in early Elvis, while Mullin dons the jumpsuits for some thrilling romps through the Vegas showroom years.

Although the festival included other entertainments, at various venues, including the Caribbean Gardens and The Prince in St Kilda, this show was its flagship vehicle. Organiser, Gordon Lyle, a Melbourne rock and roll music identity, accurately called it, “two shows in one.”

Elvis had big talent, combining a magnificent three octave voice with a genius for showmanship, which was immortalised on miles of film and audio footage. So, even though the blue suede shoes shuffled no more, the show went on and on. There was never any resting in peace for The King, as he is known among his untold millions of subjects. Elvis didn’t like being referred to as The King, saying, “Jesus Christ is the King.” He was funny like that. He probably would have found it inappropriate, on religious grounds, when George Harrison described him, in his Vegas dressing-room, as, “Looking like Lord Shiva.” Such was the level of Elvis worship, that mortal men, and occasionally women, took on the mantle of The King and went among the people, glorifying the memory of The King.

The popularity of Elvis impersonators – these days billed as Elvis tribute artists (ETAs) – is a global phenomenon. Although it only really took off after Elvis’ death, it started early in Elvis’ career and even Elvis liked them. In fact, on the 1956 Million Dollar Quartet tapes, an impromptu sing-along featuring Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis does an impression of Jackie Wilson (then a member of Ward’s Dominoes) doing an impression of him doing Don’t Be Cruel. He was so taken by it that he went back four times to see him. In Elvis’ last years, his favourite impersonator was Andy Kaufman, although Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant also managed to catch The King’s ear at a Vegas post-show meet and greet.

Mike Tsama is a seasoned music theatre artist from Sydney, whose tenor voice and dynamic physical style are ideally suited to early Elvis material. His last Melbourne appearance was in 2012, at the ultra-cool Butterfly Club, where he gave a short season of his one-man semi-dramatised show, The Rise of the Memphis Cat.

The Tsama repertoire has a broad appeal, offering an entertaining musical show that can also please hardcore Elvis fans and sophisticated theatre goers alike. This time around, Tsama presented The Memphis Cat Sings, a playbill of 13 of the songs that Elvis recorded at the Sun Studio. It included popular standards such as Blue Moon of Kentucky, Good Rockin’ Tonight and a super-rocking Baby Let’s Play House. But it also added rarely heard material like I’ll Never Let You Go and a heart-felt rendition of When It Rains It Really Pours.

Aside from radiating the bristling energy of early Elvis, Tsama also projected the aura of Elvis’ sartorial style with his choice of dress for this show – black trousers and shirt, white tie and an exquisite deep warm pink jacket, beautifully cut from the finest, glossiest Dormeuil wool cloth. It flowed over Tsama’s moves like molten metal. Elvis would have loved it.


That jacket!

While Mike Tsama was the second place winner of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, 2013, Damian Mullin was the winner in 2012, the first time this prestigious, Elvis Presley Enterprises endorsed contest was held in Australia.

Mullin has a big voice and an even bigger personality. While Elvis’ stage charisma was a formula of such elusive complexity that you can devote decades to its study, Mullin’s charisma is much easier to pin down. He connects warmly and easily with his audience, young and old alike, creating a persona that alternates between genial host and unpredictable prankster. His banter with the audience is outrageously forward and hilariously funny. In fact, it is the hallmark of his style. Mullin is a natural comic, a master of improvisation and a deft juggler of the quick quip.

If you had never seen him before, you learned this very quickly at the start of his set. Mullin casts his tall shadow over an elderly woman in the front row, saying, “I remember you, Vegas, 1971…”

“That was before my time,” she tosses back at him. Everyone laughs.

When, a bearded young man with longish hair enters the auditorium between songs, Mullin addresses him, “Ever heard of a Bic razor?” The man can barely get a word in, while Mullin continues, good-naturedly, in sudden recognition, “You’re Barry Gibb!”

Mullin finds out that the people next to ‘Barry’ are his parents, so he calls them Mr and Mrs Gibb and the rollicking fantasy continues for the rest of the night. “I’ll be doing one of the songs from your playlist, later, Barry,” he says and then launches into a stunning version of Words.


It’s only songs but songs are not all he has…

The audience is real but whether Mullin re-uses his lines in other shows, I can’t say. Elvis was very good at coming out with seemingly spontaneous one-liners that he repeated in other shows, as the opportunities presented themselves. Bless all the bootleggers because, thanks to them, we have a mine of Elvis gems, recorded live.

Working on your Elvis impersonation is an important part of being an ETA. Like the best, Mullin has a lot of Elvis going on but it’s fully togged out in a whole heap of Damian. He’s got the moves but he doesn’t overdo them and works well with his band, The Memphis Men, to make them look natural and smooth. He knows what suits his voice and sticks to it. In an age when “American Trilogy” has been done to death, he spares us another live sacrifice. Best of all, he makes his Elvis accent a butt of jokes and does not use actual Elvis expressions like, “Lord ha’ mercy,” or “Mah boy, mah boy,”. He does, however, adapt lots of Elvisisms, like pronouncing place names humorously. Prior to Saturday night, I had not thought about the different ways you could say “Toowooba,” from which one fan came. Before the show is over, he refers to the legions of his colleagues, saying, “We all have our own take on Elvis.”

Ultimately, of course, with Elvis, it all came back to the singing. He sang every day; he sang, after performing, to wind down; he sang, accompanying himself on his piano, just before going off to bed, on the last night of his life.

Mullin’s take on Elvis spanned two song sets, totalling 35 numbers, featuring many of the concert standards, from Blue Suede Shoes to Burning Love, from In the Ghetto to It’s Now or Never. Apart from Words, the other outstanding renditions, for me, were Proud Mary and Hurt. The Memphis Men, one of whom is a woman, as Mullin pointed out, pulled the show together with the big sound and slick finish that a proper tribute to Vegas Elvis deserves.

Memphis Men

‘The Memphis Men’

This week, as our mourning of the death of Robin Williams puts a pall over the celebration of the life of Elvis, we are, nevertheless, reminded of the powerfully positive role that entertainment plays in our daily lives. The Elvis Tribute Week 2014 Big Stage Spectacular was a memorable entertainment experience in the grand theatrical style. But whether the Melbourne Elvis Tribute Week can gather enough momentum to survive more than a year or two, only time will tell.

Blazenka Brysha