Playwright: Floyd Mutrux
At Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. Tickets: $35-75. Runs Through: Sept. 30
Heartbreak Hotel is the prequel to acclaimed musical Million Dollar Quartet.
Set in Memphis, Tennessee during 1954-57, it follows the story of a young Elvis Presley at the start of his career. Sam Phillips, B.B. King and the Blue Moon Boys all make appearances in this jukebox musical. At first, Elvis and his band The Blue Moon Boys are inventing Rockabilly with Sam Phillips, but then the predatory Colonel from RCA Records appears. Jerry Kinion gives the cigar puffing executive a crass and hilarious portrayal. The dramatic tension surrounds the decision Elvis must make between his roots with Sam and the Blue Moon Boys, or to go to RCA and become a star.
It is difficult to invest in Eddie Clendening's Elvis, he is not very engaging and at times actually difficult to understand. Luckily, he is backed by an incredibly fine ensemble that does most of the work of holding this show together. Zach Lentino as upright bassist Bill Black is nothing short of spectacular. Lentino plays the bass while sitting on it, straddling it, spinning it, standing on it, and while talented guitarist Scotty Moore ( Matt Codina ) plays the guitar on top of it! Black's homosexuality is also hinted atan interesting plot point for the time period.
Rounding out the ensemble were singers Geno Henderson ( Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Others ), Takesha Meshé Kizart ( Ruth Brown and others ) and Katherine Lee Bourné ( Rosetta Tharpe and others ). They are responsible for playing every Black musician Elvis ever stole from, and they are amazing. Bourné in particular possess an incredible soprano belt that kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Henderson performs circles around Clendening which left me wishing Elvis had just left Black music alone.
It is heavily suggested that Elvis was aware of and felt remorse for stealing Black music, and was pressured into not admitting it by his record labels. There is absolutely no evidence for this, and yet in the restroom audience members were discussing Elvis' unknown respect for Black music. This message of Elvis as a civil rights pioneer is hammered home with a montage of Black bodies being strangled and hosed, which was an unnecessary use of violence on Black bodies to fortify this false and irresponsible premise.
Another saving grace of this production was the projection and lighting design by Daniel Brodie and Jason Lyons respectively. Heartbreak Hotel is a show you could see without any actors onstage and still understand the story. Lyons does more with less, using only side or top light with no fill to create two dimensional shadowy silhouettes. Brodie's projections build worlds and show us faces forgotten to time, allowing us to graft that persona onto the person onstage. Heartbreak Hotel is worth seeing for the design, the band and the ensemble musicians, but the story and the lead cause it to fall short of spectacular.