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The ArtsCenter’s world premiere of Triangle playwright Paul Newell’s comedy/drama Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind, which will resume its two-week run on Nov. 15-18 in the center’s Earl Wynn Theatre in Carrboro, NC, ostensibly explores the musical roots of King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley (1935-77) and his Mississippi hometown. But, in reality, the play is neither fish nor fowl. It tries, unsuccessfully, to marry a sitcom plot about a couple of hucksters, white entrepreneur Dewey Ray (Rick Lonon) and black banker Otis Caldwell (LaMark Wright), hell-bent on creating a new Tupelo tourist attraction called the Elvis Presley Birthplace Reborn, with some serious material, including Presley family secrets and a lyrical monologue that seems especially out of character as it rolls off the lips of Dewey Ray, a middle-aged man on the make with a prison record and a firecracker temper. The result is like capping an episode of “Roseanne” with Dan Conner reciting a turgid speech from one of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic dramas.
To understand Tupelo, it helps to know that Elvis Aaron Presley was born a twin, on Jan. 8, 1935, in a two-room shotgun shack in a poor neighborhood in Tupelo, MS. But his slightly older twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, was stillborn. So, Elvis grew up as the only child of truck driver Vernon Presley and his wife, Gladys, a sewing machine operator.
In 1948, the blue-collar Presley family moved to Memphis, TN, where a teenaged Elvis eventually began emulating the famous black rhythm-and-blues singers that he heard on Beale Street and on records. In 1954, just a year after graduating from Humes High School in Memphis, Presley embarked on his meteoric singing career during which he became widely regarded as the King of Rock and Roll. He also starred in 33 Hollywood films before his untimely death at Graceland in 1977.
The whereabouts of the grave of Jessie Garon Presley figures prominently in a macabre subplot of Tupelo (Elvis’ stillborn twin has his grave at Graceland) and so does Elvis’ exposure to white pop, country, and gospel music and African-American music musicians during his 13 years in Mississippi. Dramatist Paul Newell just cannot resist cramming too many facts into Tupelo. So, there’s too much exposition — and too many ho-hum revelations — and not enough drama or comedy. Unlike Elvis, who plowed new ground as a white man singing black music as well as or better than the original artists, the characters in Tupelo are pretty predictable — just minor variations on typical small-town Southern characters.
For example, when big-shot county commissioner Bob Farley (Phil Crone) struts onto the set, it is only a matter of time before he drops the N-bomb, right in front of Otis, of course. Later anti-Semitic remarks, uttered by Farley and Dewey Ray’s administrative assistant and girlfriend Marlene Jessup (Andrea Powell) seem added to the script merely for shock effect, especially when Marlene mouths them.
Director Paul Ferguson (The Devil’s Dream, Good Ol’ Girls, and Killer Diller) makes Tupelo moderately entertaining. But he cannot completely overcome the shortcomings in Paul Newell’s script.
Rick Lonon is a pistol as the increasingly desperate Dewey Ray, who is struggling to make the Elvis Presley Birthplace Reborn a viable enterprise; but LaMark Wright is a bit bland as Otis Caldwell — or maybe the part is just written that way. Andrea Powell is delightful — fresh and funny — as Marlene Jessup — until she unexpectedly veers into anti-Semitic territory; and Adam Sampieri does the best he can with the never-quite-convincing character of academic and Elvis biographer Tom Keith, who seems to be on hand mainly to create a love triangle (with Dewey and Marlene) and dig through the courthouse records for a couple of rather tame Act II revelations that Dewey and Otis should have discovered long, long ago. Holmes Morrison is largely wasted as the handyman Harland, who mostly spies for Otis on Dewey, Marlene, and Tom and constantly digs, digs, digs for Dewey, all around the historic house.
Scenic designer John Paul Middlesworth does a nice job of creating the shabby head office of the Presley birthplace in suitable squalor. The crowded set combines with dramatic lighting by Latrice Lovett, countrified makeup and hair design by Laura Pakonis, rustic properties by Debra Kaufman, and complementary sound design by Shannon O’Neill to create a heady atmospheric in which dramatist Paul Newell can unpack some of the skeletons in the Presley family closet. The problem is, the juiciest revelations in Tupelo are not quite juicy enough to sustain a two-hour play, let alone draw tourists from all the surrounding states.
Note: Special Tupelo events include: Fan Night on Nov. 16th and a Nov. 17th post-show discussion by local writers entitled “Southern Writers Love Elvis and Fried Pickles,” which includes a gallery reception catered by Tyler’s Restaurant (yes, there really are fried pickles) and a book table by Bull’s Head Bookshop.
The ArtsCenter presents Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 15-17, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 18, at 3 p.m. at 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $15 ($7 students and $13 ArtsCenter Friends). 919/929-2787 or etix through the presenter's site. The ArtsCenter: http://www.artscenterlive.org. Elvis Presley (official web site): http://www.elvis.com/. Elvis Presley Birthplace: http://www.elvispresleybirthplace.com/ [inactive 6/08].