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‘Heartbreak Hotel’ skims surface of Elvis Presley’s meteoric rise to fame

Matt Codina (as Scotty Moore, from left), Eddie Clendening (as Elvis Presley) and Zach Lentino (as Bill Black) in "Heartbreak Hotel." | Brett Beiner

Matt Codina (as Scotty Moore, from left), Eddie Clendening (as Elvis Presley) and Zach Lentino (as Bill Black) in "Heartbreak Hotel." | Brett Beiner

It took 18 months for Elvis Presley to go from obscurity to superstardom.

As a prequel to the hit musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Heartbreak Hotel” tells that story, charting Presley’s rise to fame from humble truck driver to music icon. Featuring 36 songs (some Presley’s, some from his era contemporaries), fans (and even non-fans) will be hard-pressed not to get up on their feet and dance along to “All Shook Up,’ “Jailhouse Rock” and more.

Starring as Elvis, Eddie Clendening (he portrayed Presley in the initial Chicago run of “Million Dollar Quartet”) has the voice and mannerisms of the “King of Rock n’ Roll” down pat. He swivels his hips and curls his lip as he sings and plays guitar through Presley’s earliest songs. Clendening has a rocking duet with Geno Henderson (as Chuck Berry) on the Berry classic “Maybellene,” matching Henderson’s energy and intensity, while his vocal work on “All Shook Up” was filled with an energy that was infectious. His depiction of Elvis’ off-stage persona is also captivating: Polite, loyal and humble, Elvis never seems to be truly in control of what is happening around him.

Through Sept. 9
Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets, $35-$75
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Info: broadwayinchicago.com

And therein lies the rub: Things end up not being very much about Elvis Presley. Sure, he’s in just about every scene, but the script by director Floyd Mutrux (he also wrote “Million Dollar Quartet”) is really about how Sun Records producer Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie) and Colonel Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion) battle for Presley’s musical soul.

Phillips was hoping to bring the African-American sound (known at the time as “race music”) to a wider audience, and Presley fit the bill. McKenzie portrays Phillips as something of a musical purest with a knack for discovering and developing musical talent (including Ike Turner, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis ). He lacks business sense, however, and ends up having to sell the contract of Presley, his biggest asset, to The Colonel, a former carnival huckster and con man who seems more concerned in exploiting Presley than nurturing his artistry.

Along the way, Presley’s relationship with his first girlfriend Dixie Locke (a sweet and subtle performance by Erin Burniston) is depicted and touted as a “secret love story,” (most Presley fans know at least a bit about her). He cares for Dixie deeply (even canceling a performance so he can take her to her junior prom), but it is evident early on that the pair are on divergent paths. She wants a husband. He wants to be a star.

Eddie Clendening (as Elvis) and Jerry Kernion (as Colonel Tom Parker) in a scene from the musical “Heartbreak Hotel.” | Brett Beiner

Presley’s first band, The Blue Moon Boys —guitarist Scotty Moore (Matt Codina) and bassist Bill Black (Zack Lentino), and later drummer DJ Fontana (Jamie Pittle) are prominently featured, providing most of the show’s music (assisted by pianist Alice McCracken Morgan at times). Pittle never drops a single beat, Codina has the guitar licks down, and Lentino proves to be exceptionally acrobatic; at one point in the show he balances atop the upright bass and continues to play.

The show does an exceptional job of tackling the sensitive issue of cultural appropriation. Presley took elements of R&B, soul and gospel and made them accessible to a wider audience at the time. The early pioneers of those genres who had a hand in making Elvis who he was are rightly given a spotlight in the show. Henderson is both charismatic and dynamic in a host of roles (one scene has him quickly performing as Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others). Takesha Meshe Kizart (a grand-niece of Muddy Waters) is phenomenal as Ruth Brown, the “Queen of R& B.” Katherine Lee Bourne is also amazing as pioneering female guitarist and singer Rosetta Tharpe (the “Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll”) and several other artists.

The musical abruptly ends with Elvis at the height of his initial fame and Phillips wondering what that fame will end up costing Presley. Presley eventually walked the road toward his lonely “Heartbreak Hotel” of a life, but you are never really shown to what extent the decisions that were made for Presley at the start of his career affected him later in life.

Matt Codina (as Scotty Moore, from left), 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) in a scene from “Heartbreak Hotel.” | Brett Beiner