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Doing The Memphis Mash 

Working around the Elvis estate

Ever since the palace of The King opened to the public in June 1982, the Memphis mansion of Elvis Presley has been the epicenter for the most outrageous celebrity worship that our outrageous nation can produce. So it's no wonder that an American playwright would seek to probe the depth of the mania of two women vying for the honor of being the first to set foot on newly hallowed ground.What is somewhat surprising in Ellen Byron's Graceland, then, is the decorous modesty of the playwright's characterizations. Yes, young Rootie Mallard and her more seasoned antagonist Bev Davies are both steeped in the most arcane Elvis trivia. Yes, they're vulgar enough to go after each other in a brief catfight over which fanatic is truly first in line.

But you'd think Rootie and Bev would make their pilgrimages when the King of Rock & Roll was still cooling in his grave. Here they begin their vigils at the shrine a mere three days before the official opening. They do not kiss the ground or brandish any Elvis relics. Worst of all, though Bev is cantankerous and Rootie somewhat dopey, neither woman ever verges on the wild, squealing frontiers of insanity.

As staged by innerVoices Theatre Company, the struggle for #1 Elvis fan supremacy becomes downright idyllic in the end, with pastoral flavorings that wouldn't be discordant in a Christmas fable. Something smells fishy here.

If you remember the tribulations of Charlotte Rep when they attempted to produce the world premiere of Dorothy Velasco's Miracle at Graceland a decade ago, you may understand Byron's diffidence. Elvis Presley Enterprises protects the trademarks of Elvis and Graceland with a fervid religious zeal, and woe betide any theater company that presumes to blithely include The King's hit singles in their sound design. As a Waterbury, Connecticut, theater company recently learned, even a tribute to Elvis can be quashed by the zealots in charge of his estate.

Under Jason Looney's fine direction, innerVoices' Graceland ran a mere 84 minutes. Looney actually stretched the production to that length by skillfully fusing another Byron one-act, Asleep on the Wind, into the show. Near the end of the sparring between Bev and Rootie, we flashed back to a dialogue between Rootie and the true Elvis believer in her family, her elder brother Beau. The farewell in that companion script, as Beau leaves his hometown in the Louisiana Bayou to enlist -- and die -- in the Vietnam War, has the flowery aroma of Faulknerian folk tragedy. Including it, with Carver Johns so excellently Cajun as Beau, made Serena Ruden's claims as Rootie all the more persuasive.

Therese St. Germain put up stout resistance as Bev. Nudged along by the power of the flashback -- and an aptly chosen Presley ballad -- I could almost believe Bev's gracious surrender.

The raw reality and the intermission-less intensity of Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line were a welcome breath of fresh air as CP Summer Theatre reached the halfway mark in its 30th season. Based on the experiences of Broadway dancers and "dedicated to anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step," this 1975 hit, winner of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize, was a gloriously simple throwback.Obeying the classic unities of time and space, A Chorus Line deftly explores two grim realities. First and foremost, there's the Darwinian reality of the chorus line audition, where two dozen hopefuls must be winnowed down to eight survivors -- four men and four women who must move as one. At the same time, we're initiated into the poignant arc of the dancers' careers, so heartbreakingly short-lived and so vulnerable to sudden injuries.

Tossing aside the usual body mics, director Tom Hollis opted for the utmost in naked reality. But conductor Bill Congdon must not have gotten the memo because the CP orchestra overpowered most of the soloists. That didn't mar the luster of the dance ensemble or Linda Booth's joyous choreography.

Nor was there any barrier between us and the laser-like intensity of Billy Ensley as Zach, sitting in judgment over the auditioning hopefuls, barking commands and corrections with a steely, driven coldness. Chris Gleim was the other actor who got under my skin as Paul, delivering a compelling monologue before collapsing with his career-threatening knee injury. On the lighter side, Eddie Mabry and Connie Renda soloed effectively while Candice Conder's splashy debut as Val ("Dance: Ten; Looks: Three") bodes well for her upcoming run in the title role of Dorothy and the Planet Oz.

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