Just as peanut butter has jelly, beer has crisp bubbles and night has day, we simply cannot have one without the other. Unless you like über sticky nut butter sandwiches and flat, warm beer in the dark, of course. However, call us cliché but we like all of the aforementioned when they are rightfully paired with their respective counterparts, mainly because we have taste buds. But perhaps we are a bit biased considering the fact that we came to this conclusion when faced with the question, “What would Vegas be like without Elvis?” Just take it from us, it would be a lot less fabulous — and that’s a fact.
But while the King may no longer physically be in the building, his spirit and likeness have continued to thrive in this sparkling city and it’s all thanks to the talented performers who re-create his presence for us here in Sin City on a regular basis.
No, we are not talking about the middle-aged Elvis man on the street corner who seemingly bedazzled his onesie and bathed in pomade, nor are we are talking about the Elvi (yes, that’s plural for Elvis) who stereotypically officiate the street corner weddings. Rather, we are referring to the far and few, truly talented Elvis impersonators and actors who not only pay an uncanny tribute to the original hunk of burning love but who have spent their entire lives ensuring that their portrayal of the rock ‘n’ roll icon is spot-on and believable.
Akin to the unicorn of impersonators, we do not come across these Elvi often but to our great delight, direct from Graceland, the “Elvis Experience” at the Westgate (where the original Elvis previously performed for many years when it was The International) stars Martin Fontaine as Elvis and it’s incredible. From the wardrobe to the band to the scarves and the teddy bears handed out to crazed fans, this one-of-a-kind show precisely replicates a ’70s Elvis concert that took place in Vegas for a nostalgic evening of rocking music just as the King himself would’ve had it.
With only six performances remaining before this show spreads the love in another city, we had the chance to sit down with Martin Fontaine (who has been taking on Elvis’ persona nightly for more than three decades) to hear a little bit about what it’s like to (figuratively) take a walk in the King’s shoes.
Q&A with Martin Fontaine
Q: Explain a little bit of how you became the performer you are today.
A: I’m a professional musician and singer, I studied music in college, I play drums, guitar and a little keyboard. I’ve been performing professionally for more than 30 years as an entertainer, playing all kinds of music, mostly, blues, soul, funk and rhythm and blues, for all kinds of audiences in many countries all over the world. In 1995, I received a phone call to pass an audition for the leading role in the Elvis Experience. I got the part and portrayed Elvis ever since.
Q: You obviously had to have studied Elvis in order to portray his persona and overall likeness so well; what is a lesson that you have learned from the iconic musician through your character studies?
A: I studied really hard, and I still do it almost every day – reading books about Elvis, watching videos and listening to his music, to always try to know him better and find different angles that I can explore to help me get the right inspiration. I realized that the main thing is to be yourself, unique, and to trust your instinct in anything you do, just as he did to make him[self] the man he was.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part about being Elvis in the Elvis Experience?
A: I have the privilege of also being the art director and stage director of the show. This allows me the freedom I need to express myself and Elvis and to keep control of the vision I have for the character I play, and everything else that goes on that stage.
Q: How did you know that you perfected your Elvis impersonation?
A: Well, I don’t consider this an impersonation. I am portraying Elvis as an actor. The truth is that I never know if I perfected the portrayal or not. I just try to play Elvis the best way I can and to create the illusion and it is to the audiences to decide if they feel it or not. My work as an actor is never done. Elvis was a complex person to define and there is always something new to discover.
Q: If you were Elvis, what would you do differently during the concert you are re-creating with the Elvis Experience?
A: I never thought of that kind of question since my role is to re-create an Elvis concert – just the way it was in 1972. If anything, I would probably not have any projections on the back screen.
Q: In your opinion, what exactly was it that made Elvis such a success?
His powerful and exceptional charisma – that effect he had on people – his voice that is now the echo of that great charisma. Also his love and devotion for his music and his fans.
Q: What was the most challenging part of Elvis’ persona to impersonate?
A: To be able to play a credible character such as Elvis, I have to try to play him from the inside and out, and not the contrary. This means that I have to get the right feeling, the right emotion at the right time and place during the show. You can’t fake it, you have to feel it, and know why he was doing the things he did. I have to use all my skills as a singer, dancer, entertainer and actor, but I have to try to think like him, feel like him before trying to sing or move like him. The actions are only the prolongations of the emotions from the inside out.
Q: Aside from the fact that it is the only show direct from Graceland, what makes the “Elvis Experience” different from all of the other Elvis impersonation shows in Las Vegas?
A: It is like a big theatrical play where every artist on stage is playing the character they are portraying. In this production, we are taking the audience on a trip back in time to see Elvis surrounded by his band and backup singers of the time – the same with his conductor and orchestra. You will get the illusion that you are actually attending an Elvis concert, just the way he performed in ’72, on that very stage with J.D Sumner and The Stamps Quartet, The Sweet Inspirations, The TCB Band, Joe Guercio and his orchestra. I think this is the first production in the world to dare doing such a thing. It’s never been done this way before. It’s an authentic reconstitution, using props and vintage instruments, microphones, wigs and costumes to create the best illusion possible.
Q: Once your limited time engagement at The Westgate is through, what will you be doing next in terms of performing?
A: We are going back to Le Capitole de Québec in Canada where the show has been created. This will be our third summer season, starting July 1 until Sept. 6.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: We are all very honored and privileged to have the great opportunity to perform right here at the Westgate, the former International Hotel, where Elvis himself performed for many years. We also are enormously grateful to the Presley family for their trust invested in us on this project.