'Heartbreak Hotel' cast rocks, but script doesn't give Elvis story its due.
"Don't be cruel, to a heart that's true."
I wish I could heed that Elvis Presley song lyric when it comes to "Heartbreak Hotel," the latest jukebox musical centered around "The King of Rock." Now making its Chicago premiere at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, this prequel to the hit musical "Million Dollar Quartet" unfortunately pales in comparison.
"Million Dollar Quartet," which enjoyed a record-breaking seven-year run in Chicago, functioned as a self-contained celebration of Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis showboating their musical skills in the Memphis studios of Sun Records. "Heartbreak Hotel" doesn't reach those same levels of joy, even if it does share the distinction of featuring supremely talented actor/musicians such as original "Million Dollar Quartet" cast member Eddie Clendening returning to embody Elvis.
"Heartbreak Hotel" is more expansive in exploring Presley's many musical influences and his precipitous rise to stardom in the 1950s. Yet part of the problem is that director/playwright Floyd Mutrux's script features not enough show and far too much tell.
Rather than depicting scenes of Presley being arrested on charges of "lewd behavior" (largely due to his swiveling hips and his willingness to perform on integrated concert bills), the show tells us after the fact. That's via the narrator of radio DJ Dewey Phillips (Colte Julian, who also has fun playing Ed Sullivan), and by projected newspaper clippings (great historical archive work uncovered by projection designer Daniel Brodie).
Presley's relationship with his mother, Gladys (Alicia McCracken Morgan), is oddly eschewed. Mutrux focuses instead on conflicts with Presley's early girlfriend, Dixie Locke (Erin Burniston), and his backing band known as the Blue Moon Boys (Matt Codina as guitarist Scotty Moore, Zach Lentino as bassist Bill Black and Jamie Pittle as drummer DJ Fontana).
And considering how agent Col. Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion) manipulated the real Presley, his character comes off as relatively harmless in "Heartbreak Hotel." Mutrux does remind audiences that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie) wasn't entirely a saint, either.
Though the script doesn't coalesce into a compelling drama, it does go out of its way to provide PBS-documentary levels of historical context. It showcases, for example, how African-American performers such as Chuck Berry and Roy Brown (Geno Henderson), Rosetta Tharpe (Katherin Lee Bourn) and Ruth Brown (Takesha Mesh Kizart) helped shape Presley's bluesy sound and exuberant moves.
In terms of its staging, "Heartbreak Hotel" is ultra sleek. Among the great production design elements are Jason Lyon's flashy lighting design, Dustin Cross' glamorous period costumes and Adam Koch's glossy set design.
Throughout, the committed cast gives 100 percent. Clendening's Presley never descends to cartoonish caricatures, but a better script would have allowed him to show off more dramatic passion.
Despite its rousing finale, "Heartbreak Hotel" is a downer when compared to other real life-inspired pop music shows such as "Jersey Boys" or "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." But it is an improvement over the 2005 campy musical "All Shook Up," which went the "Mamma Mia!" route of shoehorning pre-existing Presley songs into a silly "Twelfth Night"-inspired script. Perhaps a truly great Elvis Presley jukebox musical is still in the wings.