Theater Review: HEARTBREAK HOTEL (Broadway Playhouse in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 16, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Legends require reclamation and renewal: Created by Floyd Mutrux, the huge hit Million Dollar Quartet reprised a once-in-four-lifetimes recording session in a Memphis studio that brought together Sun Records’ once and future icons: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash — and Elvis Presley. We see rock ‘n’ roll history compressed into four microphones. Once more putting us present at the creation, writer-director Mutrux launches Heartbreak Hotel, a prequel that salutes a star in formation. Now detonating at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, it should easily span the summer — if not longer.

Mutrux’s two-hour triumph is powered by Daniel Brodie’s period projections from the occasionally exciting Eisenhower Era. (The picture of Elvis with a delighted Liberace is priceless.) A collaboration of fourteen producers, this blast from the past features over 30 rock standards — featured and flip sides for total inclusion — as it celebrates the 1950s’ giddy flux: That was when a curious fusion of gospel and rhythm and blues could launch rock and roll, while pop and country morphed into rockabilly. The result: a goodwill genre whose melding epitomized a nation beset with post-war percolation and integrationist agitation. Change was in the air and in the notes. Out of necessity and also for profit, the times created a music to bring together black and white musicians and audiences; as tunesmith Dave “Curlee” Williams wrote, there was a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

A countrified crooner with a sexy voice and a telling swivel, Elvis Presley, intentionally or not, incarnates the change. Chronicling 18 short months in the pivotal years 1954-1957, Heartbreak Hotel recreates the not quite inevitable birth and breeding of a legend. Capturing the raunchy, renegade rebelliousness of this James Dean admirer, Eddie Clendening’s early Elvis makes all the right moves. He takes an impersonation from homage to the heights. Backed up by a second coming of the Blue Moon Boys, Clendening reinvents the contagious joy of, among many standards, “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “That’s All Right,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and the 1955 title ballad, a left-handed tribute to a lovelorn loser who threw himself out a hotel window after a last note: “I walk a lonely street.”

Far from a sui generis phenom, Elvis was an epicenter of influences: gospel from his beloved mother Gladys; hillbilly twangs translated into guitar riffs; and the “race records” of African-American pioneers like Chuck Berry (Geno Henderson) and Ruth Brown (Takesha Meshe Kizart) that he covered (and, some say, stole).

What instantly strikes Sun Records scout Marion (Darcy Jo Wood) about Elvis is his indefinable cross-over appeal to young and mixed audiences. She vouches for him to her boss Sam Philips (Matt McKenzie). This gruff entrepreneur takes him on — and the rest is history. But, as narrated by Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (Colte Julian), it was no smooth highway to heaven: Elvis embarked on a rocky road (specifically Beale Street) to become “Marlon Brando with a guitar.”

Strategically but sadly, he outgrows his back-up band and eventually Sam Phillips too. That happens as the no longer innocent up-and-comer makes a deal with the devil. A sucker for a good sales pitch, Elvis is impressed by wheeler-dealer promises of TV exposure and national fame from shyster promoter “Colonel” Tom Parker (a ferocious Jerry Kernion): This literal snake-oil salesman (“Kickapoo Joy Juice”) steals Elvis from Sun Records for a mere $40,000 and grooms him for glory. Next up: RCA and controversial, purportedly “lewd” appearances on The Steve Allen Show and, most notably, The Ed Sullivan Show (where Elvis is only shown from the waist up).

Growing pains abound: The future King’s philandering with roadies like Alice from Dallas (Andrea Collier) and other chippies forces his pretty blonde girl friend Dixie Locke (Erin Burniston) to take an un-fond farewell (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”). Amid the shimmying and shaking comes a car crash and, less accidental, racist condemnations for performing before integrated crowds. (A well-placed, timely section pays tribute to civil rights crusaders, past and future.)

The seminal story aside, this jammin’ jamboree delivers a very generous jukebox, ranging from “Maybellene” to “Earth Angel” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Hound Dog” (which an oddly tuxedoed Elvis performed to a real mutt).

Creating the perfect last impression, the “megamix” curtain call delivers more favorites, a cunning calling card for a second visit.

At the heart of Heartbreak is Clendening’s born-again Elvis, reinventing “Are You Lonely Tonight?” from the inside out amid the delirious bewilderment of a truck driver turned national monument. More than a spin-off from Million Dollar Quartet, this “play it again” romp takes us on a “Mystery Train” to some “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” Grateful crowds will leave “All Shook Up.”

photos by Brett Beiner

Heartbreak Hotel
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Broadway Playhouse at the Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut Street
Tues-Sat at 7:30; Wed, Sat & Sun at 2; Sun at 7
ends on September 9, 2018
for tickets call 312.977.1710 or visit Broadway In Chicago

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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