Through September 30th
reviewed by Bobby Franklin
The early years of Elvis Presley are too often overlooked. Most Presley impersonators portray the Elvis of the Vegas stage years wearing capes and sequined jump suits. At this later point in his life the drug use was really beginning to show, and the rock icon was becoming a tragic figure. The hard living would result in his untimely death at the age of 42. It is unfortunate it is this Elvis who is most often portrayed
While the Las Vegas Elvis fits into the much too often tragedy of a great talent taken down by his own success, the more interesting story lies in his early years. This is where Floyd Mutrux, the creator of the Tony Award winning Million Dollar Quartet, which played to sold out crowds at the Ogunquit Playhouse the past two seasons, has stepped in to tell the truly fascinating story of Presley’s early life.
Heartbreak Hotel is a prequel to Million Dollar Quartet and focuses on the Sun Records years of the young truck driver who would skyrocket to fame overnight.
The world premiere of Heartbreak Hotel is now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse. It is an interesting production to watch as it is still a work in progress. The music is positively outstanding with all of the actors playing their own instruments.
Eddie Clendening who originated the role of Presley in the Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet is not an Elvis impersonator. He brings much more to the stage than just imitating the rock icon. Clendening captures the persona of the young Elvis. Most impressively, he is able to rock out with the raw energy of Presley while always retaining that shyness that made him so charming. While ripping out on songs such as Good Rockin’ Tonight with hips swiveling and lip twitching we see that young boy who still seems just a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight even while he is thriving on it. Clendening really pulls this off and it is no easy task to do so. This is as close as you will come to experiencing the young Elvis, a paradoxical figure who was shy and yet craved attention.
The story is not just about Elvis but also about the era. It was an amazing and transformational time in music and there are cameos from many of the other great performers of the time. These include Wanda Jackson (Brenna Bloom) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe played by Terita Redd who deserves an Amen! for her amazing rock/gospel singing.
Geno Henderson nearly steals the show playing numerous greats including Chuck Berry and Nat King Cole. Mr. Henderson moves seamlessly through his parts.
The interplay between Colonel Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion) and Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie) creates a tension with Parker seeing Presley as a product and Phillips recognizing him as a great artist. It leaves us wondering just what would have happened if Presley had decided to remain with Phillips.
Yes, this play is a work in progress with the musical numbers, the sets, the lighting, all outstanding. I don’t think this time of Elvis Presley’s life has ever been captured so well. Where the production is weak is in the book. The early life of this seemingly simple southern boy is a very complex story. It is a huge challenge to try to capture even a very condensed version of all that went on in those early years while still focusing on the music. What I saw on the stage in Ogunquit is a great start to what can be a wonderful and important story. It will be interesting to see how it all develops.
There are more than a couple of reasons to see Heartbreak Hotel. First, watching Eddie Clendening as the young Elvis is a truly great experience. He really gets it. Second, while this is a work that is still being developed it is fascinating to be a part of the process as I am sure the writer and director are taking the pulse of the audiences. It might not be a bad idea for them to have suggestion boxes placed at the exits. I know I would have contributed a few.
Heartbreak Hotel takes us back to one of the most incredible eras in the history of American music. It is just amazing when you realize how fast things changed. It was an exciting time that lives on in music through this day. It’s rather ironic that Colonel Parker chose to take Elvis to Hollywood and Vegas as he didn’t believe Rock N Roll was going to last. Sam Phillips knew better.