A true Elvis tribute: Trent Carlini is himself in “The King”

Trent Carlini is widely regarded as one of the best Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas, and with a re-imagined show at LVH that’s as genuine and touching as it is classically fun, it’s clear that he’ll remain a star for years to come.

The show highlights Elvis’ life in film, and it treats Carlini as a payer of tribute more than as a strict impersonator. Most notably, Carlini shares the stage with his beautiful and talented wife, Ashley Belle, who dances in almost every number and performs solo.

“She has an entire story to tell,” Carlini said of Belle. “… She can tell a story with just one look.”

The two have a natural rhythm and chemistry on stage and an obvious wealth of mutual respect. Carlini refers to Belle as his “co-star” and praises her work throughout the show.

Belle opens the production with a solo dance to the modern country hit “Cry Like Memphis,” setting the tone for the show: Carlini is not actually Elvis and he won’t pretend to be. This is a concert to honor a beloved musician and his work.

The set is simple — just a few sheer curtains on which soft lights and video are projected — but Carlini and Belle’s costumes provide plenty to look at. They both change outfits every two or three songs.

Carlini wears the compulsory gold blazer for the show’s opener, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and adds a guitar with a flowered pick guard for “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” He dons a Hawaiian shirt and a lei for his tribute to the 1961 film “Blue Hawaii” and dresses in all leather for “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up.” He performs “If I Can Dream” in Elvis’ classic white suit, then finishes the show in a bedazzled sky blue jumpsuit and a wide, shiny white belt.

Belle’s wardrobe is just as extensive, including girly army fatigues for “G.I. Blues” and a glitzy green grass skirt and bikini top during the Blue Hawaii tribute. She gives the men in the audience something to watch, but her performance is appropriate to the period she represents, and she’s never less than classy.

If you see “The King,” you’ll agree there’s no question that Carlini earns his reputation as one of Vegas’ best. Still, it’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Carlini special.

It could be the mastery with which he handles his musical duty. A life-long fan of Elvis, Carlini started performing The King’s music at parties and functions around age 10. (His dad was his “manager.”) So he knows the material inside and out, which means he can deliver a smooth-as-silk performance every night.

Maybe it’s the way he works a room that makes him a long-time Vegas favorite. Shimmer Cabaret at LVH is a small, 350-seat showroom with lines of chairs instead of built-in seating. The stage is low and close to the audience and it’s just big enough for Carlini and his co-star to put on an intimate show. The small crowd is just right for Carlini, who works to look every guest in the eye. He responds to individuals’ reactions and makes each member feel like the sole object of his serenade.

But the biggest reason Carlini has won hearts with Elvis’ music since 1977 has to be the total honesty with which he plays his role. There’s none of the garishness of over-eager impersonators — no excess of hip swinging or thankyouverymuch-ing. Carlini doesn’t try to be Elvis. He is himself throughout the show: a lover of Elvis’ music willing to share his passion with an audience.

He is an artist in his own right, not a rip-off or a piggybacker. Oh yes, he looks and sounds like the king, but he also looks and sounds like Trent Carlini. During the show, a video takes the audience into Carlini’s Southern Nevada home, to a jam session in his living room. The real-ness of the stage performance sinks in for the audience when he returns to the stage.

As the show draws to a close, Carlini calls on the audience to “stand up for Elvis Presley.” He then exits the stage and from behind a white curtain, backlighting shows his silhouette. The moment is sincere — even poignant. We got the sense that during this brief, quiet scene, Carlini mourned a little for his idol.

Carlini says that sometimes other impersonators visit his show to take notes. We’re not surprised, but though the quality of his performance is certainly something to aspire to, no one could match it by imitation, because Carlini’s greatness depends largely on his sincerity and a performance that showcases a love of Elvis and his music that is free from pretense.

“The closest I get to Elvis is when I’m singing,” he said, explaining that he seeks to feel the emotion of each song as it was originally experienced.

“The only way to feel that is to humanly feel the emotions [Elvis] would have felt,” Carlini said.

Carlini’s performance soars when he connects to the music and Elvis.  He is at his best vocally when he sings love songs. The night we were there, the most powerful moment in the show was the end of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which Carlini called “the most beautiful love song in the world.”

It could just as easily be the soundtrack to the audience’s love affair with Carlini’s show — a love we hope will last as long as the memory of the artist who inspired him.