During an interview on WLS-TV, Heartbreak Hotel’s coproducer Scott Prisand summed up his team’s sales pitch to Authentic Brands Group, owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, during preproduction negotiations thusly: “They know an Elvis musical . . . an Elvis Broadway show . . . how can that not work?”
In a Domino’s Pizza-of-theater sort of way, he’s absolutely right. Not unlike the teams behind many of the formulaic biomusicals produced at Black Ensemble Theater, Million Dollar Quartet cowriter Floyd Mutrux, who wrote and also directs Heartbreak, dutifully hits Behind the Music-style chapters in Presley’s life between 1954 and 1957 with enough hard winking and elbow nudging to draw blood. In one scene Eddie Clendening as young Elvis stares longingly at a leather jacket in a window. In another, he scoffs at the idea of wearing Liberace-level accessories (“Can you imagine me coming back to Vegas wearing a cape?”).
But unlike MDQ’s one-night concert format, Heartbreak’s chronological rundown of relationship and rehearsal room dramas bogs down perfectly decent—if not particularly rousing—renditions of Elvis’s greatest hits with humdrum if educational contractual developments.
At the very least, Mutrux avoids The Greatest Showman-type revisionist history by acknowledging the direct cultural appropriation inherent in Presley’s success and highlighting the black artists from whom Elvis and his producers stole. That history would cut deeper if it all weren’t so cartoonish and surface level, and the attempt to have it both ways comes across as the show wanting to have its fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and eat it too.
Still, MDQ’s huge Chicago fanbase will likely find plenty of numbers to enjoy here, particularly Erin Burniston’s crystalline and shiver-inducing rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” v