Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Music is King: Likable 'Heartbreak Hotel' Dwells on Too Much Besides Elvis -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Heartbreak Hotel
a new musical about Elvis Presley
written & directed by Floyd Mutrux
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru September 30

My understanding is that Elvis Presley's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show--on Sept. 9, 1956--didn't represent his "introduction" to most of America quite as much as The Beatles' debut on that show did on Feb. 9, 1964.

By the time Charles Laughton--not Sullivan, who was recovering from a car accident--introduced Presley midway through the hour, Elvis had already appeared on a number of TV shows during 1956, played several concerts and had had four #1 million-selling hits ("Heartbreak Hotel," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog").

A fifth #1 single in Elvis' breakthrough year of '56--"Love Me Tender," the title song of his first movie, the filming of which prompted him to appear on Sullivan from a Hollywood studio--would soon follow.

But the Ed Sullivan Show, a Sunday night staple in the early days of television, was generally the most-watched program in America at the time. And the approximately 60 million viewers for the first of Elvis' three appearances--nearly 83% of the TV audience--represented a new record.

Elvis would also be on Ed Sullivan on October 28--in New York, with the show's namesake--and January 6, 1957, the latter infamous for the censoring (at Parker's behest) Presley's below the waist gyrations, which only served to ramp up titillation and controversy.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
But per noted rock writer, Greil Marcus (as referenced on Wikipedia), more than any other single event, it was this first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that made Presley a national celebrity of barely precedented proportions.

With the handsome, charming and hip-shaking Elvis the Pelvis representing not only the birth of rock and roll--though certainly not unilaterally--but also the focus point of a rising teenage subculture that had never previously existed, it's almost impossible for me to gauge how exciting and seismic that September night must have felt in living rooms across America.

I'm far more a Beatlemaniac than Elvis fanatic, and have long had reverence for how much the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan changed the cultural landscape.

And although--despite being old enough--I didn't actually see, live, Michael Jackson moonwalk on Motown 25 or Nirvana blast out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on their first Saturday Night Live appearance, I've noted how captivating TV performances can not only have great musical impact, but immense societal reach.

But Elvis came first, and I have to imagine some perceived him as not just a punk but nearly a Martian.

Sure, Frank Sinatra had elicited ear-piercing screams from the bobby soxers more than a decade earlier, but that was before television, the end of World War II or rock and roll.

So, with the new musical Heartbreak Hotel centering on Elvis between 1954-57, my hope was that it would provide a sense of the frenzied excitement and on-the-precipice-of-a-revolution reaction that presumably accompanied him taking a stage in that era.

...whether on Ed Sullivan or Louisiana Hayride or in a high school gymnasium across the American South.

But while Heartbreak Hotel features tons of talent--including Eddie Clendening as a great Elvis--I found that it dwells too much on backstory, and too little on chills-inducing, culture-shifting music from the King.

With that said, I would stipulate that much of what writer/director Floyd Mutrux--who co-wrote the terrific Million Dollar Quartet--opts to focus on is both salient and historically important.

That Elvis, his initial rockabilly style of music and ultimately rock 'n roll were fused from "race music"-- whether found in gospel churches choirs or Beale Street clubs in Memphis--is a point that deserves to be made.

And Katherine Lee Bourne and Takesha Meshe Kizart (as Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and others), and the nearly show-stealing Geno Henderson (as B.B. King, Roy Brown, Chuck Berry and others), make it searingly, with sizzling performances.

Heartbreak Hotel is constantly entertaining, and the considerable stage time given to Elvis' early girlfriend Dixie Locke (Erin Burniston), Sun Records head Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie), local DJ Dewey Phillips (Colte Julian), Blue Moon Boys bandmates Scotty Moore (Matt Codina), Bill Black (Zach Lentino) & DJ Fontana (Jamie Pittie) and Elvis' eventual manager Col. Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion), reflect many people--along with his parents--who were important in Elvis' early biography.

Quite often I find that jukebox musicals--featuring well-known songs by cherished artists--and the tribute shows that are the specialty of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater are inherently enjoyable due to beloved music and excellent performances, yet short of being theatrically superb, usually owing to a lack of narrative or character development.

So it's estimable that Mutrux is trying to give us more than Elvis' greatest hits onstage. There are more than enough impersonators one can see be King for a night, if all one wants is music and an occasional "Thank ya very much."

But across three viewings--initially in its premiere run at Goodman Theatre--I found Million Dollar Quartet to be wonderful, in part because it doesn't try to do too much.

It takes a real-life occurrence--Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all being at Sun Studios on Dec. 4, 1956--and with a relatively narrow focus, lets the four legends rock out over 90 minutes (in the guise of those embodying them).

There are liberties taken with the songs actually performed that night, and some biographical tidbits about recording contracts, hit records, career arcs and girlfriends interspersed between the songs, but while certainly not Shakespeare, MDQ is joyous and thrilling.

And if this new show were called Elvis Presley's America, where musical influences on him and--through his popularizing of black music--his importance amid the Civil Rights movement were presumed to be much of the gist, the structure might have seemed more sensible.

As it stands, nothing that is broached is unwarranted--and Heartbreak Hotel is far from bad--but I think it somehow needs to put Elvis Aron Presley more front and center from the get-go.

Mutrux obviously knows far more about the true circumstances than I do, and I don't doubt there were many belligerent arguments between Col. Tom and Sam Phillips, or that Elvis went to Dixie's senior prom despite scheduling conflicts.

There is also compelling drama in the almost Faustian relationship Elvis has with Parker, who for all his pomposity--and Kernion certainly plays that up here--undoubtedly abets King-sized success, whether through a bigger record deal, mass merchandising, marketing Elvis without a band and TV exposure.

I also liked the mentioning of Marlon Brando and James Dean, who--with their youthful, rebellious personas--give some nice context around Elvis seemingly rising like a phoenix.

As already noted, Bourne, Kizart and Henderson are fantastic on several songs early in the show.

And as with this endeavor overall, Burniston's Dixie is quite likable.

So there is plenty to enjoy, as it stands. (I imagine there will be ongoing tinkering.) 

But if you attend this show, ostensibly about a young Elvis, expecting Kingly jolts of electricity--as I did--you won't really get that until well into Act II.

Other than "That's All Right, Mama," there really aren't any "OMG!" Elvis classics before intermission, and prior to a post-bows Mega-Mix, few others are performed in-full or uninterrupted.

Eventually, Clendening & Co.'s romps through "Mystery Train," "All Shook Up," "Ready Teddy" and "Jailhouse Rock" gave me a sense of just how hyper-kinetic--and yes, sexually provocative--Elvis' gyrations must have been to mid-'50s teens (and their horrified parents).

And why--with perhaps just a bit of hyperbole--the history of the world can fairly be divided into "Before Elvis" and "After Elvis."

There is much reason for the applause I heartily bestowed.

But albeit with many worthy themes, messages, elements, characters and performances, Heartbreak Hotel spends far too much time foreshadowing, anticipating, discussing and dissecting the Big Bang--and not enough just showing it at full-tilt.

Or more so--as much as any not-the-actual-Elvis endeavor ever can--letting you feel it.

In your gut.

And wherever else at the end of Lonely St. you might dwell.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Elvis was checked out. Found wanting.