Watching Luigi Januzzi’s “All the King’s Women” last night at Ferndale’s Michigan Actors Studio (MAS), we couldn’t help but feel that the playwright was acting as a fortune teller, revealing his story one card at a time. It is, in fact, a series of eight independent vignettes (five full scenes, three clever monologues) neatly arranged in nearly chronological order. The play is constructed so that each story offers a tangential glance at Elvis Presley through the eyes of the people (mostly women) who appear on the periphery of pivotal or simply poignant moments in his life.
But you don’t have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy this comedy, which is sweet but never saccharine – portraying real people and their “near Elvis experiences” in a way that is always honest but never condescending. It’s addictive, and by the last short scene, there is a reluctance to step away from this world of rock ‘n’ roll royalty.
“All the King’s Women” could not be more charming or engaging, and the actors, who play multiple roles, compel us to become fully immersed in the moment. For this production by the Detroit Ensemble Theatre, directing duties are split between MAS Artistic Director Rich Goteri and Managing Director Rachel Bellack, but the show feels seamless.
In the first scene, set in Tupelo in 1946, we meet the saleswoman who sells Elvis’ mom a guitar for her son’s 11th birthday. (Elvis wants a rifle, but his mother won’t allow it.) Next, it’s 1956 and we’re eavesdropping on the arrangements being made for Elvis’ appearance on the Steve Allen Show. Determined to uphold the strict decorum of a family TV comedy show, Steve Allen has devised a plot to contain Elvis’ unseemly, immoral pelvic gyrations and keep him focused on the singing.
In quick succession: 1963 – we meet a young mother who runs into Elvis at 3 a.m. in the supermarket; 1970 – we get the backstory on Elvis’ famous meeting with Richard Nixon; 1963 – we hear the staff at Andy Warhol’s studio practicing how they’ll ask for The King's endorsement of Warhol’s pop-art portrait of Elvis; 1976 – we see the occasion of Elvis purchasing yet another new Cadillac; 1977 – we meet a guard at Graceland who mourns the King’s passing; and we end in the present day, where a young couple contemplates life after Elvis and their all-consuming jobs at Graceland.
The characters who people these simple and honest stories make us laugh at our all-to-human infatuation with celebrity. But for the most part, these are likeable people with whom we empathize. The wonderful DET cast includes Joanna Bronson, Jaclynn Cherry, Phil Hughes, Sonja Marquis, Linda Rabin-Hammel, Hobart Reynolds and Kez Settle.
This is a fun, family-friendly show that is deeply satisfying – like a great home-cooked meal. The characters may be quirky, but they leave us with a sense that Elvis himself was a pretty good guy, if a bit eccentric – a man who loved his country, his Cadillacs, and the common man.
“All the King’s Women” runs at Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale, located at 648 East 9 Mile Road (2 blocks east of Woodward), through March 24. Performances are on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets can be reserved online or purchased at the MAS box office. For more information, visit the Detroit Ensemble Theatre website.