Elvis comes home for Christmas

by Amy Kingsley

It’s late evening at the Barn Dinner Theater. White-shirted servers have cleared plates, but dinner remnants still cling to plastic tablecloths and the air reeks of honey ham and yeast rolls.

An announcer stands in the center of the stage, a perfect square surrounded by other squares. From the floor, four tiers of diners stretch the outer walls. Many of them angle their chairs away from the tables, lean their heads back and cross their ankles, reclining in such a way to reduce pressure from distended bellies.

The announcer rushes through the rules, which, for a theater, are pretty lax. Cell phones are forbidden, but flash photography and audience participation encouraged. In many other establishments this would conclude the pre-show rigmarole, but at the Barn Dinner Theater it’s just the beginning.

The announcer welcomes tour groups from Liberty, Roxboro, Henry County and the Association of Information Technology Professionals. She recognizes birthday celebrants; there are six in the sellout crowd including a woman celebrating her 91st and a boy marking his 10th.

The band ramps up; the crowd eases out of their post dinner stupor; and a drum roll drowns out the final announcement.

“And now the man you’ve all been waiting for,” she says. “For the first time in 28 years’….”

The lights dim and Elvis tribute artist (neé impersonator) Stephen Freeman swaggers onto the stage. The band quiets after an introductory flourish and settles in to the rollicking “Too Much.”

Freeman is, from a distance, a solid ringer for the King. He’s cultivated sideburns of respectable length and swept the remaining hair into something of a ducktail. Despite features that are a little stronger than the sexy-effete singer, Freeman passes mostly by virtue of his ice-blue eyes, which are visible from any seat in the house.

Freeman’s voice, backed up by a crew of practiced players, dwells serenely in the Elvis register. What the former police officer and High Point native lacks in true Memphis soul he makes up for in crowd repartee.

Freeman opens with a set of tunes drawn from Elvis’ early career. Dressed in plain slacks, an open-necked shirt and suede buck shoes, pivoting on a swiveling right leg, he quickly whips the crowd into a frenzy.

When Freeman wades into the crowd, the women approach like supplicants. Several linger, their arms wrapped around his neck, after he delivers a brief peck on the cheek. By the time Freeman exits for his first costume change, the women in the crowd resemble quivering schoolgirls.

The band pays homage to Elvis’ gospel singing, the only genre for which Presley received a Grammy. The King returns in a baptismal white naval suit with a stack of gospel songs. The effect is equivalent to cold water. Previously hormonal women sit piously at their tables.

During the intermission, Freeman changes into the standard late-Elvis onesie. A single par can pointed toward the exit door illuminates the star on his reentry. Intermission cocktails have primed the ladies for his final set, and as Freeman wades into the crowd he often resembles an embattled quarterback trying to roll out of the pocket before a sacking by sexagenarian linebackers. During “White Christmas” a fan approaches from the back row and showers Freeman with fake snow made from a paper napkin.

Freeman remains a good sport throughout. After a rousing “Suspicious Minds,” dozens of table lamps warm to a post show glow. Freeman reprises “Love Me Tender,” and under walls filled with Toulouse Lautrec posters, the audience applauds, stands and gathers its things.

In the lobby past the gift counter a side door opens; several patrons queue up and peer into the rain for the tour bus that will ferry them back to Liberty, Roxboro or Henry County.

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