Friday, September 15, 2017

Theater Review: Heartbreak Hotel

While on vacation in Maine this Fall, I was privileged to see the world premiere of Heartbreak Hotel at the Ogunquit Playhouse.  This latest offering is from the pen of the prolific Floyd Mutrux whose previous works, Million Dollar Quartet and Baby It's You have enjoyed much success in recent years.  I saw Million Dollar Quartet last year, and while it was a worthwhile experience overall, HH is the stronger and more compelling story, with a superior cast, at least in the Ogunquit production I attended.  HH is the story of the young Elvis Presley, from his discovery at Sun Records in Memphis by Sam Phillips to the sale of his contract to RCA a few short years later.  Portrayed by the captivating Eddie Clendening supported by a cast of solid musicians deftly paying respect to the music of Rock and Roll's dawning days, the Elvis character was lovingly played both as a believable character and a musician with a gift for the world.  Clendening nailed the subtleties of the shy, awkward kid that first walked into Sun to make a record for his mother.  In a world of hyped, cliched,  and overstated impersonation, and the callous treatment of the tragedy that his life ultimately became, Clendening's respectful rendering of Rock and Roll's number one icon was refreshingly poignant.  This, in short, is the Elvis I wish to remember.  Musically, you couldn't do any better than this extraordinary cast serving up not only Presley's music, but the African American canon of  music that influenced and shaped him.  As is the case with many musicals in the Rock and Roll genre, the music itself is the real story, with trite dialogue serving as filler between the great and memorable repertoire we all came to hear one more time.  HH is a story that deserves to be told with reverence and relevance, which is what happened here.  Along with Million Dollar Quartet, Baby It's You, and Heartbreak Hotel, director Mutrux is also the author of the American Pop Anthology whose history informs his writing of Rock and Roll plays.  His success and competence with these musical vehicles has earned him a Broadway run of MDQ with Clendening in the lead role, so it seems likely that HH is Broadway bound as well.

Richard Mayer

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