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Review: HEARTBREAK HOTEL at Broadway In Chicago

Review: HEARTBREAK HOTEL at Broadway In Chicago

In the new Elvis musical HEARTBREAK HOTEL, hearts are unfortunately not the only thing that's breaking at the Broadway Playhouse. This show, from MILLION DOLLAR QUARTER co-creator Floyd Mutrux (who also directs), serves up slice-and-dice theater. Watching the musical gave me a feeling of theatrical whiplash, as it rotated between scenes and songs at a confusingly rapid speed. While I was much looking forward to hearing some of Elvis's greatest hits live onstage, Mutrux's book delivers them piecemeal. Most of Elvis's songs are reduced to snippets of roughly 30 seconds or so, which might leave even the most hard-core fans of "the King" wishing for more.

Conceived as a prequel to the widely acclaimed MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, HEARTBREAK HOTEL ostensibly captures Elvis's journey from truck driver to superstar-with his Blue Moon Boys by his side. While even this rather straightforward plot is difficult to follow in Mutrux's writing, he does cleverly use the character of DJ Dewey Phillips (a highly energetic Colte Julian) to serve as narrator. The show takes place from 1954-1957, and while it's never entirely clear what year it is, Phillips's role at least clues audiences into what's happening. Phillips, upon which the central character of Huey Calhoun in the musical MEMPHIS is based, also serves as a great reminder that Elvis's career was in part owed to cultural appropriation. Elvis's music included elements of R&B and gospel music that were folded into his signature "rockabilly" sound to create rock and roll. Unfortunately, HEARTBREAK HOTEL lacks the finesse and the energy of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET and does not do full justice to Elvis's song catalog with the hackneyed musical numbers.

Production-wise, the show's setting fits the era. Adam Koch's set design in the intimate Broadway Playhouse is mostly open space, onto which various set pieces glide throughout the performance. Because the venue does not have a pit, the modest band (who double as the Blue Moon Boys, alongside pianist Alice McCracken Morgan) remain onstage throughout the show. This gives the show a relaxed concert-vibe. Daniel Brodie's curated projection design allows audiences to see images of the real-life Elvis Presley, punctuating supposedly key moments in the show and offering a bit of clarity to the murky storyline.

Fortunately, this production does have a few saving graces. Eddie Clendening reprises the role of Elvis after taking on this icon in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, and his vocal interpretation of the singer remains spot on. Though Clendening is not a dead ringer for Elvis looks-wise, he definitely sports the right hairstyle and the right outfits (courtesy of costume designer Dustin Cross). And when he tears into Elvis's songs, it's a good time indeed. Erin Burniston is charming and sweet as Elvis's high school girlfriend Dixie Locke. Burniston also has formidable vocal talents, which she lends beautifully to the classic "Can't Help Falling In Love." Matt McKenzie has a warm and grounded presence as Sun Records head Sam Phillips. Jerry Kernion is appreciably smarmy as Colonel Tom Parker, the manager eager to take advantage of Elvis's rising fame.

And though it takes nearly two hours to arrive there, HEARTBREAK HOTEL's built-in four song encore finally brings the music and the energy that the rest of the show presently needs. In that moment, it was joyful to watch Clendening and the rest of the ensemble take on such hits as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Jailhouse Rock."

Broadway In Chicago's engagement of HEARTBREAK HOTEL plays the Broadway Playhouse through September 30. Tickets are $35-$75.

Photo by Brett Beiner

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