Chicago audiences may remember how in “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical about an historic moment in recording history, Elvis Presley was unhappy with his agent and RCA Victor. He wanted to be back in the understanding arms of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips.
We don’t see everything that led up to that notable time, an unexpected jam session of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins in December 1956, but we do learn about some of the problems he faced in “Heartbreak Hotel,” the prequel to that million dollar jukebox musical.
No question it’s hard to recapture the magic of seeing amazingly talented pianists play Jerry Lee and wonderful vocalists echo “I Walk the Line,” ”Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
But written and directed by Floyd Mutrux who co-wrote “Million Dollar Quartet” with Colin Escott and had co-directed the show in Chicago with Eric Schaeffer, his “Heartbreak Hotel” has enough talent on stage and background videos as scenery to keep audiences enthralled.
Eddie Clendening who interpreted Elvis on Broadway in the original musical and this prequel when it premiered in Ogunquit, ME, is back on stage in the Chicago production. He is still presenting the shy side of the rockabilly singer from Tupelo, MS/Memphis, TN and the idol with all the right moves and voice inflections to keep “King of Rock’ n’ Roll” fans happy.
Colte Julian is not just Dewery Phillips, Station WHBO’s disc jockey and the show’s sometime narrator. As audiences figure out during the rousing, hand-clapping, standing ovation after the show is supposedly over, Glendening really channels Elvis, the whole cast rocks and rolls and Julian climbs an upright piano and pumps the keys like the Jerry Lee character he portrayed in “Million Dollar Quartet” in Chicago, Vegas and the National Tour.
To remind people of the music influences that sold records at the time, the show pulls in Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, BB King and others in the person of vocalist, guitarist and TV veteran Geno Henderson. He and his groups step to Birgitte Bhorum’s choreography.
However, folks are reminded that after Sun Records sold Elvis’ contract, his career was directed by money-is-everything agent Colonel Tom Parker, acted with heartless perfection by regional theatre and TV veteran Jerry Kernion.
Then, there is Elvis’ band, the Blue Moon Boys. It’s fun to watch them because they are superb instrumentalists. Guitarist Matt Codina is the original Scotty Moore, Elvis early manager. Zach Lentino, playing bassist Bill Black, was in “Million Dollar Quartet” at Chicago’s Apollo Theatre. Jamie Pittle, drummer DJ Fontana, originated the role in Maine and has appeared in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Sam Phillips, portrayed by TV, film and Broadway actor Matt McKenzie, appears strongest in the beginning when he doesn’t care for Elvis’ sound until he notches up the rhythm with “That’s All Right, Mama.” Phillips played an important part in Elvis’ life but his character seems to fade somewhat in “Heartbreak Hotel.” He seemed stronger in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Shout-outs go to Katherine Lee Bourné (Rosetta Thorpe and others) and Takesha Meshé Kizazrt (Ruth Brown and others) for their exceptional gospel, soul and other vocal representations of the music of the times.
Much of the show, covering early Elvis from 1954-57, includes bits generally know such as the Ed Sullivan show’s waist-high camera mandate but it also includes an arguably lesser known love interest. Singer, actor Erin Burniston is believable as Dixie Locke, Elvis’ young girlfriend who doesn’t want to share him with other women.
The talented cast also includes Darcy Jo Wood as Marion Keisker who brings Elvis to Sam Phillip’s attention and singer Andrea Collier who plays Sally Wilbourn and others.
Except for the station’s WHBO’s mic at one end, the stage is bare. But “That’s All Right” for this show because the band and singers fill the front and Elvis shots and historical race headlines and photos set the period at the back. (Projection design is by Daniel Brodie.)
“Heartbreak Hotel” isn’t only a jukebox musical with wonderful reprises of Elvis’ hits. It places the early part of the “King’s” career within the confines of a racist America that had, until recently, seemed to belong to the past.
Even though the presentation of the story line could be stronger,Elvis, the band and the music of the time make the show worth seeing.
DETAILS: “Heartbreak Hotel” is at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago, through Sept. 30, 2018. Running time: 2 hrs. For tickets and other information call (800) 775-2000 and visit Broadway in Chicago. BroadwayInChicago.com
For more shows visit TheatreinChicago.