“Heartbreak Hotel,” now playing at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in downtown Chicago, is an earnest rendition of Elvis Presley’s first 18 months, from his beginnings at Sun Records to his rocket rise to stardom.
The story revolves around how Elvis (played with gusto by Eddie Clendening) and the legendary Sam Phillips (a very effective Matt McKenzie) create the sound that will change the course of music history.
“Heartbreak Hotel” broaches the obvious fleecing of the sound and mannerisms of the Sam Phillips-coined “Rockabilly” from African-Americans. Writer and director Floyd Multrux brings it to the forefront with an honest nod to what was called at the time “race” music. The phrase “Heartbreak Hotel” also serves as a double entendre, for there were more than a few musicians who had their work stolen and hearts broken during this era. I do wish it had been more than a nod, though. A bit more detail about how it affected the lives of black musicians wouldn’t have hurt since we did get a glimpse of what happened to Carl Perkins when Elvis was convinced to record Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” for his second chartbuster.
The best arc of the musical, though, is the ferocious fight for control of Elvis: Sam Phillips versus Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was a classic carnival barker who could sell anything, a man easy to hate as he turned Elvis into a parody of himself. The role of Colonel Tom Parker was played so well by Jerry Kernion I wanted to both congratulate him and slug him.
I appreciated the growth in the role of Elvis as Eddie Clendening effectively rolled from naïve country boy to a young man realizing, at least in glimpses, that he was losing control of his own destiny. While Eddie showed it, DJ Fontana (played by Jamie Pittle) narrated, filling in essential details.
A rousing rendition, this two-hour-plus production flew by as fast as a Scotty Moore guitar solo. Act I was over before I knew it and Act II was no less exciting. Dazzling display of musical talent filled the stage. The Blue Moon Boys, the legendary Scottie Moore (played by Matt Codina), Dewey Phillips (Colte Julian) and Bill Black (Zach Lentino) were excellent. The multi-talented Geno Henderson, who played a variety of singers from Roy Brown to Chuck Barry to Jerry Lee Lewis, was a treat to watch. His voice is outstanding. Female singers who belt it out note-for-note with the men are the incomparable duo of Katherine Lee Bourné and Takesha Meshé Kizart, who played a wide variety of famous females from that era. Geno and the ladies are worth the price of admission on their own.
Dixie Locke, Elvis’ girlfriend who he took to her prom rather than taking a gig, was as heartbroken as any of them along his meteoric rise. Erin Burniston did a fine turn of being a woman desperately in love with a man, but not so desperate as to forsake all of her goals just to follow along like a puppy. A bravo must be thrown toward both Darcy Jo Wood as Merion Keisker and Andrea Collier as Sally Wilbourn, the real-life duo who kept the books and Sun Records afloat.
The Broadway Playhouse is a well-designed theater without a bad seat in the house (appropriately velvet-cushioned, too). Overall, the sound filled the room along with a seamless set with complementary stage lights and projection befit for a king. Super clean effort by the entire crew.
“Heartbreak Hotel’s” grand finale is a medley of Elvis hits from the era, including “All Shook Up.” Every soul in the audience was enthusiastically shaken up by this production.
The Broadway Playhouse is an easy Metra ride to the Ogilvie Transportation Center, then an Uber/Lyft/cab or hearty walk to Water Tower Place (the theater is off Chestnut Street, right behind this shopper’s tower of delight).
• Rick Copper is a writer, photographer, storyteller, part-time actor and comedian with a framed master’s degree from the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and a loose Certificate of Completion sheet of paper from Second City’s Improv program. Published works include “Crystal Lake: incorporation of a city 1914-2014.”