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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Heartbreak Hotel
Broadway Playhouse
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's reviews of Pamplona and The Color Purple


Matt Codina, Eddie Clendening and Zach Lentino
Photo by Brett Beiner
Just as Marvel Studios has its Marvel Cinematic Universe wherein Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Iron Man et al know each other, the musical theater world has developed a sort of "Memphis Stage Universe" surrounding the pioneers of rock and roll. First there was Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott's Million Dollar Quartet, the retelling of a night in which Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all jammed at the studios of Sun Records where they all got their start under the tutelage and promotion of Sam Phillips. Then a "prequel" of sorts, Joe Di Pietro and David Bryan's Memphis, a fictional story inspired by the life and career of Dewey Phillips, the Memphis radio DJ who was instrumental in bringing African-American R&B to mainstream audiences.

Now Mutrux is back with Heartbreak Hotel, a book musical that details the early career of Presley. Sam Phillips, the owner of the first label to record Presley, is a major character: and Dewey Phillips is the narrator. Carl Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" Presley covered and made into a major hit, is mentioned in the dialogue.

Heartbreak Hotel is a more ambitious piece than Million Dollar Quartet, with a more expansive story, a larger cast, and more elaborate production values. It seeks to be more than an Elvis tribute show, but that's where it's most successful. Their Elvis is Eddie Clendening, who played Presley in the original cast of the long running Chicago production of Million Dollar Quartet and then reprised the role for the Broadway production. Now, as then, he's a terrific stand-in for Elvis—looking and singing like the original without suggesting any of the bad Elvis impersonators we've seen over the years. The songs from Presley's early career are ably backed up by the performers playing The Blue Moon Boys: Matt Codina as Scotty Moore, Zach Lentino as Bill Black, and Jamie Pittle as D.J. Fontana. The music is directed by Tom Vendafreddo. Many of the songs are danced as well, thanks to the bright choreography by Birgitte Bjorum.

Mutrux's script, which he directs, gives credit to the African-American musical roots of rock and roll. After an initial framing device depicting Presley's 1968 "comeback" TV special, the Dewey Phillips character introduces songs said to have influenced Presley. Katherine Lee Bourné, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, belts out a powerful "Strange Things Happening Everyday." It's followed by an equally impressive "Wild, Wild Young Men" by Takesha Meshé Kizart as Ruth Brown. Mutrux's staging moves slickly through 1954-57 with Adam Koch's simple unit and rolling set pieces taking us through the stages and studios of the era, along with historical projections designed by Daniel Brodie and consistently surprising lighting effects by Jason Lyons.

It's all a sharp, showman-like presentation of the rock music of the era that ought to (and seemed to on the night I attended) more than satisfy its core audience. Colte Julian as Dewey Phillips narrates the bridges between the story and the songs and he does so with charm and humor—suggestive of the Huey Calhoun character inspired by Dewey Phillips in Memphis. And no, this character does not say "hock-a-doo"—that was an invention by Di Pietro for Huey.

Heartbreak Hotel isn't as successful as drama, though it makes a good attempt. Presley's career, which we're told led him to sell out people who had helped him (Sam Phillips, Scotty Moore) or loved him (girlfriend Dixie Locke), is suggested to be something of a Faustian bargain. (One of the characters even mentions the Faust story). Mutrux doesn't take it far enough, though. It may be he didn't want to demonize the iconic Presley, but he suggests the young Elvis was too naïve to completely understand the choices he was making.

The devil in this story is Presley's legendary manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, played here with juicy relish by Jerry Kernion. He's an entertaining character of the sort one loves to hate, but the script doesn't sufficiently explain who he is or how he came to be so powerful over Elvis. Parker's opposite number is the record producer Sam Phillips, played as a street-smart but kind father figure by Matt McKenzie. Presley's supportive girlfriend is sweetly played by Erin Burniston, with him from the lean times to the good times, until his infidelities and celebrity get to be too much for her.

The dilemma facing Mutrux or anyone else doing a bio of a much-loved musical performer is balancing the songs with the story, and let's be honest, the songs are what sell the tickets and the songs are going to win. As a result, the scenes have to economically convey the story. Mutrux's dialogue gets either too expositional or is too quick to cover big moments, like the breakup with Dixie and with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, in emotional scenes that haven't been sufficiently earned. As a result, the scenes feel perfunctory and a bit phony. There's a promising idea for a drama here—the battle for Elvis's soul between Tom Parker and Sam Phillips—but it's insufficiently developed in favor of the musical numbers.

Realistically, though, maybe the true believers who would be most interested in Heartbreak Hotel know the story already—or know as much as they want to. This musical gives such audiences more context than a tribute concert would, and in the hands of Clendening and this singing, dancing, and musical instrument-playing ensemble, those audiences will get what they're most looking for.

Heartbreak Hotel, through September 30, 2018, at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago IL. Tickets are on sale at www.broadwayinchicago.com.


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