Hear the word “cabaret” and you might think of Sally Bowles in a bowler and garters belting out Kander & Ebb songs in Weimar Republic Germany. Or perhaps Jacques Brel singing amid the small tables of Paris’s Les Trois Baudets in the 1950s. Or maybe Bobby Short crooning Cole Porter tunes at Manhattan’s Café Carlyle in the ’60s.
Signature Theatre wants you to see Elvis Presley in the same light: Its latest cabaret show, “Entirely Elvis,” is a stripped-down show with the focus on the music, free from the distractions of the jukebox-musical formula.
“Our intent in giving Elvis the cabaret treatment is to showcase his music and take it seriously,” says director Kelly D’Amboise. “The music still touches a nerve — it’s visceral for people. That’s why these songs are endlessly played and covered. There was a rawness to the way Elvis performed that really hit home. The actual music has an important place in our musical history.
“Like Cole Porter and Kurt Weill, Elvis was somebody who had an original sound. It came from a mixture of country, gospel and the blues, but his blend was something no one had ever heard before.”
Presley only rarely wrote his own songs; his signature sound was a reflection of ones he had chosen (or what were chosen for him) and how he shaped the arrangements. He imbued everything he sang with a blithe sense of freedom, as if he were unconstrained by the pessimism and fatalism of his blues and country predecessors. He personified a new, postwar generation that assumed every gratification was within reach and every disappointment was a mere bump in the road.
A good example of this was “Hound Dog,” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When Big Mama Thornton sang the original recording, she delivered it as a scathing denunciation of a no-good man. When Presley sang it, he performed it as a joking dismissal of an ex-lover too ridiculous to worry about. Someone who can shrug off the past will always sound freer than someone who carries a grudge.
“Elvis was an Olympic champion when it came to singing, just like Little Richard, Marvin Gaye or Paul McCartney,” Leiber told me in 1996. “He had an unrelenting and undaunted energy. He had an uncanny sense of timing. The timbre of Elvis’s voice made him the greatest ballad singer since Bing Crosby. The sound of his voice alone is the statement. The hips were . . . showmanship, but that’s aside from being able to sing.”
Leiber and Stoller join Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Otis Blackwell, Carl Perkins, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein as songwriters featured in “Entirely Elvis” at Signature. These are some of the finest tunesmiths of the 1950s; the lyrics of Leiber and Pomus are as clever as those of Hammerstein, and the melodies of Stoller and Shuman are as memorable as Rodgers’s.
The show features four singers, two on guitar and one at the piano, as well as a bassist and a drummer. The songs will be presented in roughly chronological order with short spoken segments to provide biographical context. The arrangements will reflect the original recordings as much as possible.
Of course, there may be some hip swinging, but there will be no attempt at impersonation.
“I love an Elvis impersonator,” D’Amboise says, “but that’s not what I want to put onstage. The Elvis impersonator shows look at the brand of Elvis the icon, and we’re not really interested in that. We’re really looking at the songs we feel are musically significant. I’m not emphasizing the legend, the bedazzled image with the pompadour and cape. I’m interested in what he emphasized in the studio: his blues and gospel roots, the songs of his mother and adolescence.”
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.
Dates: Tuesday-June 30. Signature follows up the Elvis cabaret with its “Sizzlin’ Summer Nights Cabaret Series” July 19-Aug. 4.