3 out of 4 stars
In 1954, a humble truck driver checks in to Sun Records to record a song for his mother and leaves with the chance at a career that skyrocketed to stardom. Heartbreak Hotel journeys through Elvis Presley’s rise to fame and the growing pains of showbiz. Tony nominated writer and director Floyd Mutrux gives fascinating insight to the music industry with this prequel to the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet, also written by Mutrux.
Radio host Dewey Phillips, played by the incomparable Colte Julian, narrates the musical history and context of Presley’s career with sociological insight and headline news, while onstage the drama plays out between managerial powerhouses Sun Records producer Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie) and Colonel Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion). The story focuses more upon the politics and money driving these two individuals than it does with Elvis being a pawn to the entire plot. The production felt like a nostalgic history lesson with interspersed exciting musical numbers. The production has an impressive musical variety which adds to the sociological undertones of the script. Phillips was hoping to bring “race music” to a wider audience and Presley seemed the perfect messenger for the job. While the two record tycoons battle over contracts, Elvis struggles to balance this new found fame and his romantic life with his sweetheart, Dixie Locke. Eddie Clendening, who portrayed Presley in the original Chicago run of Million Dollar Quartet, gives a rocking rendition of the king and a depth to the Mississippi kid trying to keep some sort of control to a runaway train. The color schemes across the scenic design/lighting design were enjoyable with reds and oranges of passion contrasting against the melancholy jewel toned purples and blues. These two complimentary palettes allowed Dustin Cross’ costume design to really be a focal point amid the grander scenery. Cross’ attention to detail is evident with the authentic styling and men’s ware muted tones, as well as not being heavy handed with the women’s patterns – enjoyable tartan patterns and a lines. A believable depiction of a historically identifiable period in American fashion.
Under the musical direction of Tom Vendafreddo, the production features 36 songs including “Hound Dog”, “Money Honey”, “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. The real draw of this production was hands down the moments solely dedicated to the music. Full on performance style sequences from Elvis and other greats backed by incredibly, insanely talented musicians. Matt Condina (Scotty Moore), Zack Lentino (Bill Black), and Jamie Pittle (DJ Fontana) comprise as the band that Elvis began his career with, The Blue Moon Boys. From guitar solos to enthusiastic acrobatics, your toe will definitely be tapping throughout this play! On the note of music, I was astounded by the talent and range of the ensemble members, particularly Katherine Lee Bourne (as Rosetta Tharpe and others), Takesha Meshe Kizart (as Ruth Brown and others) and Geno Henderson (Chuck Berry/Roy Brown and others). Their character study and renditions of their roles really highlighted the talent and accuracy it takes to perform a demanding multiple role part. Bourne and Kizart truly set the stage opening the show with breakout solos that set the bar high for the rest of the performance.
Three projection screens are utilized in Adam Koch’s scenic design. The open floor plan with moving scrim and platforms holding instruments, audiences are transported to the offices of Sun Records, as well as to Memphis’ infamous Beale Street. 3D gifs and historical still photography by projection design Daniel Brodie plays with varied multimedia creating atmosphere and depth alongside Jason Lyon’s colorful selective lighting design. There were moments within the production that really shown and highlighted selections in the work. These moments were mainly during the full performance sequences complete with hip-thrusts and curled lip. The show hinges upon these moments while tackling conveying personal lives, the cost of success and a turbulent civil rights movements growing from America’s roots. The full stage performance moments were the most exciting and compelling and really highlighted the staging and production as a whole. Jamming eighteen months into a two hour production is no easy feat, Heartbreak Hotel is an enjoyable production that gives the audience a fishbowl view of the music industry’s underbelly and the key moments that lead to who we now know as the King of Rock and Roll.
Heartbreak Hotel runs at Broadway Playhouse now through September 30th, 2018. For tickets and more information, please visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!