Heartbreak Hotel, the prequel to Million Dollar Quartet (the musical inspired by the December 4, 1956 recording session that brought together Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, ran in Chicago for more than seven years and nearly 3,000 performances) opened on Sunday, July 15 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (175 E. Chestnut).
Like Million Dollar Quartet, Heartbreak Hotel is a jukebox musical, featuring the music of Elvis Presley. The story takes places in Memphis between 1954 and 1957 and loosely follows the early years of Presley’s career and his relationships with his backup band, the Blue Moon Boys, Sam Phillips of Sun Records, “Colonel” Tom Parker, and his first girlfriend, Dixie Locke.
Presley is portrayed by Eddie Clendening, who originated the role in Million Dollar Quartet and then brought him back in the original production of Heartbreak Hotel at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine. Clendening vaguely resembles Presley, but he knows Presley. He embodies Presley without being an impersonator and he is a delight to watch during the musical performances.
The music is definitely where Heartbreak Hotel shines. The show plays all of Presley’s hits from Love Me Tender to Hound Dog to Heartbreak Hotel. Clendening is effortless and the Blue Moon Boys are incredibly gifted musicians, especially upright bassist Zach Lentino who often plays while perched atop his instrument. The backup singers are all terrific too, particularly Geno Henderson (Chuck Berry/Roy Brown and others), Takesha Meshé Kizart (Ruth Brown and others) and Katherine Lee Bourne (Rosetta Tharpe and others)—I would watch 90 minutes of just those three singing. Everyone in the cast is on point with their musical performances.
Where the show falters a bit is between the musical numbers. It is certainly ambitious in attempting to tell Presley’s origin story. It touches on the wheeling and dealing that skyrocketed him to the zeitgeist of the time. It also explores his love life, his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the death of his mother and the cultural appropriation of the R&B singers of the day (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc). Further, while beautifully performed, one particularly patriotic bit featured no music by Presley and felt out of place, if not a bit manipulative. I just wanted them to go back to singing the classic Presley tunes. Fortunately, they did.
Also, Heartbreak Hotel made great use of monitors to show news clippings and photos of a young Elvis Presley (who looked remarkably like Justin Bieber).
The most joyful part of the show was the end. After the principal action came to an end, the cast was introduced and the bows were taken, Clendening and the rest of the cast sang a medley of some of Presley’s best known hits. The audience was immediately on its feet, singing and dancing as if Presley himself was in the building. His spirit certainly was.
Heartbreak Hotel is at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (175 E. Chestnut) through September 9, 2018.
Should I see it? If you love Elvis Presley and his music, yes.