BWW Review: HEARTBREAK HOTEL at Ogunquit Playhouse
Heartbreak Hotel covers the rise of Elvis Presley from a humble truck driver in Memphis to the King of Rock 'N' Roll, a journey that took only 18 months to complete.
The new musical now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse is the prequel to the record setting, Million Dollar Quartet, a Tony award winning Broadway show that has been playing to sold-out houses since 2006. It had an abbreviated stage performance in 2016 and now returns as a full-scale production with a world premiere here in Maine as written and directed by Floyd Mutrux who penned Million Dollar Quartet. His wife, Birgitte Mutrux, serves as choreographer.
This new musical features hit songs from the King himself, as well as the legends who influenced his iconic music, with chart-toppers including "Blue Suede Shoes," "Tutti Frutti," "That's All Right," "Shake Rattle and Roll," and, of course, "Heartbreak Hotel."
The show begins in 1954 with a mild-mannered Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening) going to a recording studio simply to record a birthday song for his mother. What ensued was a chance meeting with record producer Sam Philips (Matt McKenzie) who harnessed Presley's talent and forever changed the world of popular music.
Amidst the non-stop array of Elvis tunes, many of them captured in brief snippets rather than full performances, audiences are introduced to Presley's first true love, Dixie (Erin Burniston), to Alice from Dallas (Fallon Goodson) a backstage vixen who woos the future superstar, and Colonel Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion), a flamboyant talent manager who some believe exploited Presley to garner enormous profits during the entertainer's career.
There's a marvelous supporting cast of performers portraying many musical legends associated with Elvis and an astonishingly talented trio performing as his backup band in bassist, Nathan Yates Douglass, drummer, Jamie Pittle, and guitarist, Matt Codina.
There's a wide-open stage for the production surrounded by massive walls looking much like steel grate panels in a warehouse. Mood lighting helps depict scene changes. In a very clever and effective device, real life photos, news clippings, and videos of Elvis are projected on the walls along with occasional images of the current cast. It is a nice blend and a great way to set a documentary feeling to the production.
The cast is solid in this show and typical of what audiences expect on the Ogunquit stage.
McKenzie and Kernion are perfect foils as the duo fighting to chart Presley's future. Burniston is delightful as the King's first love. She even joins him in a musical number to show off her wonderful vocals.
Clendening, as Elvis, is spectacular. He should be after playing the role in Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway and Off Broadway for over 2000 appearances. He captures every nuance of Elvis while not looking exactly like him. That's fine and it works wonderfully. He can belt out any number with energy that rocks the theater. He is remarkable in his transition from timid country boy to sensational star.
A hidden gem performance comes through with the character of Dewey Phillips (Christopher Sutton) one of the early disc jockeys of the period who serves as narrator and comic relief. Rather than simply having a voice over narration, the producers were brilliant in making a disc jockey fulfill that role. Sutton is perfectly matched to the role that comfortably moves the storyline of the show.
Executive Artistic Director Bradford T. Kenney reminded the audience during the pre-show patter that the show is a work in progress noting that scripts for some scenes were distributed on opening night and that the show might be much different toward the end of its five-week run. And while the show is extremely entertaining and sure to be a hit, here are a few thoughts to consider as the work develops.
Stop moving the musicians' platform on and off the stage. The moves are distracting and take focus away from other elements. Leave it in one spot and trust that the audience can use their imagination when locales shift through the story.
While Elvis wooed the world with rock 'n' roll, he was also a great balladeer. How about including a few more of those melodic favorites?
Keep working on a more powerful ending to the show. What seemed to be the start of another number was in fact the curtain call that appeared out of nowhere. Take a cue from the sequel production of Million Dollar Quartet that had the best ending ever.
Heartbreak Hotel runs through September 30. For tickets go to ogunquitplayhouse.org.