LONDON — "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" a West End musical about the tragic final days of Elvis Presley, begins with mourners gathered around Elvis' casket. These friends and family members are so shaken that they literally hold on to each other for support.
But the audience's attention is gradually drawn to what another of the play's characters--the Colonel--is holding: a wooden dummy dressed in a gold lame suit like the one Elvis wore in one of his early album cover photos.
It's an imaginative way to dramatize the image of the manager, Col. Tom Parker, as the cynical, all-powerful force who controlled every aspect of Elvis' career.
While the other mourners are still absorbed with the funeral, the Colonel seems curiously unmoved. He finally steps to the edge of the stage and confides to the audience that he never really understood what everyone saw in Elvis.
But no matter, he shrugs. There's no reason to let a little thing like Elvis' death interfere with business. With a firm grip on the dummy, the Colonel announces, "The show goes on."
And in the real world, the Presley "show" indeed does go on: the tours at Graceland in Memphis . . . the repackaging of Elvis records by RCA . . . the books, including the recent best-seller by Elvis' widow Priscilla.
Even "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is part of the continuing Elvis "show." But where the other projects are designed to comfort Elvis fans, Alan Bleasdale's play sets out to provoke the Elvis fans.
The production, taking its title from one of Elvis' earliest ballads, is a dark look at stardom--a portrait of a lonely, broken man, out of touch with his fans, his art and himself.
Strangely, though, the atmosphere in the Phoenix Theatre wasn't downbeat. A sizeable percentage of fans reacted to the singing of the young Elvis the same way fans did at Elvis' concerts. Several screamed so emotionally that tears came to their eyes and they buried their heads in their arms.
Others danced or clapped along to the music. They seemed oblivious to the tragic elements in the play. They wanted to celebrate Elvis, not deal with the questions of corruption and fame.
"I still love Elvis," a woman sitting in front of me said during intermission. "I don't care what happened to him. He had troubles, but anybody would if they went through what he went through. He gave so much for his fans. He's still the King."
As much as the play itself, the continuing, almost eerie devotion of Elvis fans underscores the degree of the intoxicating pressures that Presley lived with virtually all his adult life.
One might expect to find a similar intensity at a play about another rock legend whose life also had its tragic side. But the atmosphere was far different at the Astoria Theatre, where "Lennon" has been running since late last year.
For one thing, the tone of the play itself is much lighter. First staged in Liverpool in 1981, "Lennon" is just one step above a simulated concert a la "Beatlemania." The cast goes through highlights from Lennon's life--everything from meeting Paul McCartney to the peace "bed-in" with Yoko Ono.
But the scenes are too familiar and too brief to turn the evening into anything more than a sort of walking wax museum. There's no evidence of a playwright's vision, no provocative insight or commentary to make us think of Lennon in a new light. This lack of revelation or provocation leaves the whole thing cold and curiously flat.
The audience, too, seemed far more sedate. Those with whom I spoke at intermission clearly looked upon Lennon with much affection and respect. But they saw him as a talented, socially conscious human being --not a god.
"Lennon," for most of the audience, is merely an evening at the theater. For many people the night I was at the Phoenix, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was akin to a religious experience.
In the program notes for "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Alan Bleasdale, a British novelist and playwright, explains that he wanted to examine the sadness and grotesqueness surrounding a man who discovered too late that his almost unprecedented pop stardom had become a "life (prison) sentence."
The three-level stage design at the Phoenix Theatre points to the forces at work. The top level is a burial ground for old autos, and the three most prominent symbols--the battered fronts of once-proud Cadillacs--represent Elvis' early ambition and fame and his eventual disintegration.
The second level is where the young Elvis (played expertly by Simon Bowman) relives his glory days, singing "Hound Dog" and other hits with a vitality of movement and voice that has the fans shrieking.
At the bottom level is Elvis' Graceland living room on the last night of his life.
"Good morning," Elvis mutters as he enters the room. A sidekick, soured from all the years of being on call, snaps back, "Well, it would be, boss, but it's 9:30 in the evening."