Milton’s Steve Michaels on building a fit tribute to Elvis in Return to Grace
It’s “the concert of a lifetime”: that’s the subtitle of Return to Grace, the musical spectacular visiting the Princess of Wales Theatre this week. This play on words refers both to the show’s structure — which recreates iconic performances from several decades of Elvis Presley’s career — and the experience that lead performer Steve Michaels hopes the show offers to audiences.
“We’ve had some wonderful compliments,” says Michaels. “Some folks say ‘we never had the chance to see Elvis, but this is like having the opportunity to time travel and know what it was like to see him perform live.’ ” However, the most important kudos, for Michaels, come from former skeptics.
“The best compliment is people who say, ‘I gotta tell you, I didn’t want to come see this show because I’m such an Elvis fan and I hold him near and dear to my heart. I didn’t think I’d allow myself to enjoy it, but you did it — you made my dreams come true as a fan.’ ”
Michaels, who has been performing as Elvis for two and a half decades, says that it’s the scale of Return to Grace that sets it apart amongst Elvis tributes: there are over 30 performers on stage, from backup dancers to what Michaels describes as a “huge, dynamic core band. The music is exactly the way you remember it, if you’re a diehard fan.”
This is the third time that Mirvish Productions has presented the show but its first time in the Princess of Wales, which holds a particular place in Michaels’ heart because he once saw one of his idols, Hugh Jackman, perform there. While the physical show remains the same as in previous Toronto visits, Michaels says his performance will be different, enriched by the experience of touring around the U.K. last year in the Bill Kenwright-produced musical This is Elvis, which challenged him as an actor as well as singer.
“Those 200 performances made me appreciate (Elvis) more,” says Michaels. “It was like going back to the drawing board … I’m itching to get on stage to show people how much I’ve changed, how much I’ve grown as a performer.”
Return to Grace moves through important moments of Elvis’s career from his early days in Memphis, through the ’68 Comeback Special, all the way to the 1973 Aloha from Hawaii concert, which was famously broadcast by satellite around the world. The story purposely stops there, before the artist went into decline: that’s “touched on in the dialogue but it’s not in your face. We want to keep it 100% the music and the memories. We all know how it ends,” says Michaels.
His physical resemblance to Elvis Presley is uncanny, and Michaels says that he’s used to getting double takes when he’s out in public: “When I’m not performing I try not to be someone who’s looking for people to notice me, but there’s only so much you can do with a ’70s haircut. I can mess it up a bit but the sideburns are a dead giveaway.” He’s always working to keep a clear line between his onstage and offstage personas: ”How could you be humble in yourself,” he asks, “if you walk around thinking you’re Elvis all the time?”
A resident of Milton nearly all his life, Michaels performs as Elvis in a number of different contexts including a touring Christmas show. When asked what the most unusual location was in which he’s played the King, Michaels offers a surprisingly touching story, about a request from a big fan of his who was near the end of her life in hospice care: “One of her last requests was to see me perform, so with her family and her caretakers we had a little sing-song and it just sort of made everything come true for her,” he recalls.
The show’s title, of course, nods to Elvis’s famed home, but Michaels says that show creator Rob Asselstine wanted it to have a more open meaning: “It’s to return the memory of Elvis right where it should be, pressing the reset button. This is where he belongs” — living through his music, onstage.
Return to Grace plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., from May 7-12. Mirvish.com, 416-872-1212 or 800-461-3333.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2