Rob Mallett had no intention of auditioning for the main role of Elvis in the current touring production of Elvis: A Musical Revolution.

The Tasmanian-born performer had his eye on a minor role, citing a few reasons for the low-key approach.

One major factor was that Mallett’s wife – musical theatre star Chloe Zuel, who played the lead of Eliza Hamilton in the original Australian cast of Hamilton The Musical – was due to give birth to the couple’s first child last year. Their son Tadhg is now seven months old.

“The timing was sort of unusual in that my wife was due to have the baby so we knew that was in the pipeline and it was all going to coincide at the same time, so it seemed like too much hard work,” Mallett says.

“And even then I think I had in my mind that if I was going to audition for it, that there was going to be a host of other performers who had been Elvis devotees their whole life, who would be more suitable for the role, so I eyed off one of the other kind of satellite characters.

“But once we got going, the team certainly wanted me to come in for Elvis, so they saw something in me that I didn’t.”

Rob Mallett and Annie Chiswell star as Elvis and Priscilla. Photo: Nicole Cleary

The show’s Australian creatives, including director Alister Smith, choreographer Michael Ralph and music director Daniel Puckey, knew they’d found their main man in Mallett, casting the 33-year-old talent as Elvis from a field of 700 hopefuls.

“I was elated to get the role,” he says. “It’s a fickle business at the best of times and COVID certainly magnified that unpredictable nature of our work.

“It’s an amazing moment when these roles come through and then you get straight to work.”

Elvis: A Musical Revolution, presented by David Venn Enterprises, premiered in Sydney in February and will have a four-week season in Adelaide from April 3 before moving to Perth and then the Gold Coast.

Taking on the role of Priscilla Presley is musical theatre star Annie Chiswell (Friends! The Musical Parody, Mamma Mia), while Noni McCallum (Come From Away, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding) performs the role of Elvis’s mother Gladys, with Ian Stenlake (Sea Patrol, Stingers, Mamma Mia) playing Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, Kirby Burgess (Dirty Dancing, Grease, The Wedding Singer) as Hollywood actress Ann-Margret and Ben Hall as Memphis record producer Sam Phillips.

The production begins and ends with Elvis’s famous comeback television appearance in 1968, commonly referred to as the ’68 special, and then flashes back to pivotal moments in the iconic singer’s life. These include his teenage years, success at Sun Records, dealings with his controversial manager, time in Hollywood, marriage to Priscilla and the birth of the couple’s daughter Lisa Marie in 1968.

“We don’t delve into the fall-down… but we do cover the struggle of falling into irrelevance because he is shackled by the Colonel’s wants, and Elvis deciding to stake his claim and take back his creativity,” Mallett says. “That’s what’s so significant about the ’68 special, in that it really reinvented him as being this rock ‘n’ roll icon.

“We get to see these really rich relationships with his romantic partners, with his childhood sweetheart, Dixie [Locke], then Priscilla, the Colonel and Sam Phillips at Sun Records; all those machinations of how he became successful.

Kirby Burgess, Ben Hall and Ian Stenlake in Elvis: A Musical Revolution. Photo: Nicole Cleary

“We sort of see these cultural icons transcend into a deity almost, and yet he was just a young man – it all happened fairly fast, through to his death at 42. So he was dealing with these extraordinary pressures of time and wealth and cultural relevance through his music.”

So how did Mallett step into the shoes of a musical and cultural icon and put his stamp on the role as “The King”?

“It’s a good question, because there’s so much of Elvis out there and people have such a clear idea of who he was and they’re so passionate about him. And of course, I’m following in the footsteps of [actor] Austin Butler, who so recently did such an awesome job in the Baz Luhrmann film [Elvis] and I really loved it.

“So I was aware there was a pressure but then it’s just head down bum up and a lot of my own work and relying on the people around me once I did have the job.

“I worked with a dialect coach, choreographer and a singing teacher to nail it. I think also with any good casting, I just suited the role; it naturally sits on me. I am of type and that’s always the job of casting… to try to find that person so you’re not trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. You want the easy fit and I was it.”

Rob Mallett has perfected the classic Elvis moves. Photo: Ken Leanfore

Perfecting some of the signature Elvis dance moves, such as the  “rubber legs”, is a challenge – even for Mallett, who trained in Irish dancing as a child and studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

“It feels so unnatural, even for a dancer, to do some of those moves which I can’t believe Elvis did – he was such a freak of nature. He didn’t spend years in dance classes and yet he had this incredible ability,” says Mallett, whose musical theatre credits include The Rocky Horror Show, Aladdin, Singin’ in the Rain, Les Misérables and Hot Shoe Shuffle.

The performer says maintaining the stamina for such a big-scale production, week in, week out, has also been demanding.

“I don’t think Elvis had to do seven or eight shows a week – it’s a huge load to carry, [a huge] vocal load. But it’s such a great group of people and the piece itself, with such great music, just carries you.”

Elvis: The Musical includes more than 40 of the singer’s big hits, such as “Jailhouse Rock”, “Hound Dog”, “That’s All Right”, “All Shook Up”, “Suspicious Minds”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Burning Love”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “See See Rider” and “A Little Less Conversation”.

Rob Mallett and some of the cast of Elvis: A Musical Revolution. Photo: Nicole Cleary

Mallett says the show has been very well received and, all these years later, the man and his music still resonate strongly with audiences.

“I think it’s largely his music, and Elvis was greater than the sum of his parts,” he says. “He had this incredible voice and it blended and fused these cultures together of blues/roots and this rhythm sort of soulful music into the mainstream in the 1950s, which was a conservative time in America.

“Elvis landed on the scene when middle America was getting TVs in their lounge-rooms, he had this outrageous fashion, so there’s all these factors that made him the star he was.

“But also, Elvis means so much to so many. The younger generation will say, ‘My Gran was a huge Elvis fan’, so it’s almost like the older generation give him as a gift to younger people.”

Mallett, whose screen credits include Home & Away and House Husbands, says he carries a huge sense of personal achievement to have taken on this iconic role and been part of the creative process.

Immersing himself in the life of Elvis has also been a revelation for Mallett, who grew up in Tasmania’s Huon Valley and worked in his family’s apple orchard while on a performing arts school scholarship.

“Seeing things through his eyes, that’s certainly the job of an actor – to instantly empathise with a character and not sit outside it and judge it, but to walk through the piece in their shoes. I think that’s what we set out to show the audience in this show, to show the struggles and the successes through Elvis’s point of view.

“It’s a total party as well as giving this real-life glimpse behind the scenes of the man behind the myth.”

Elvis: A Musical Revolution plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide from April 3 and will then tour to Perth’s Crown Theatre in May and HOTA on the Gold Coast in June.

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