Elvis perished so long ago that even rumors that he’s still living are dead.
But in Las Vegas, the King lives on, even as the city grapples with its ongoing relationship with the King’s image.
Is he the sequined-jump-suited, walking icon who performed a historic sold-out residency at the International and Las Vegas Hilton? Is he a giant personality performing walk-in shows at a Strip-side piano bar? Is he the guy toting the tip bucket, posing for photos in front of the Bellagio Fountains? Or is he the rotating figure in “Legends in Concert.”
In Las Vegas, Elvis is really a big puzzle for fans to assemble. A new show is attempting to re-produce the Elvis Presley of the mid-1950s, when he was a risk-taking rock ‘n’ roller who blended gospel, R&B and country into a new brand of modern music.
“Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel the Concert” at Harrah’s Showroom is the Strip’s first large-scale production centered on Elvis since Cirque’s “Viva Elvis” shut down at Aria in August 2012. The King lives on in the cozy “All Shook Up” show at V Theater at Miracle Mile Shops, as the famed “Legend” in the show of that name, and also in Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee’s afternoon performance at Harrah’s Piano Bar.
“Heartbreak,” by comparison, is an ambitious, showroom-scale resident production that runs 8 p.m. daily (dark Tuesdays, with a 3 p.m. Sunday performance added). The loose timeline pre-dates “Million Dollar Quartet.” The music is all live from the stage and the band thunders through most of Presley’s songs from his early days, and even uncorks such tunes from outside his ’50s heyday, including “Viva Las Vegas.”
The band can hump it up, charging through “That’s Alight (Mama),” “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and of course the show’s title tune. Audience members who want to revisit Elvis’ golden era should be happy with the set list.
Still, the show attempts not to be many things — not a scripted “book” show, not a prequel to “MDQ,” not a traditional jukebox musical, and certainly not a rote tribute to Elvis Presley.
But it is a tribute to Elvis.
As the show’s promotional material is quick to note, “Heartbreak Hotel” is the only Elvis production in Las Vegas authorized by Authentic Brands Group, which owns Elvis Presley Enterprises. As such, you’re treated to perhaps every promotional photo taken of Presley in the 1950s. All the video is there, too. It all sets up as a successful attempt to produce a 1950s-era Elvis show.
The central character, Eddie Clendening, sings as Elvis, plays a nifty guitar and helps carry the narrative of Elvis’ story. But Clendening is not defined as Elvis in the context of the show. He continually refers to Elvis in the third person, as if an external and nameless musician who was inspired by the King.
This, as Clendening sings in Elvis’ vocal style, sways a little (but not too much) and even curls his lip.
Fans need to get past such confusing moments as when Clendening, as Elvis, says, “Elvis met Colonel Tom Parker …” or, “When Elvis turned 21, he had to sign up for military service.” At one moment, Clendening is actually re-introduced as Elvis for a scene reviving his TV debut on “The Tommy Dorsey Show.”
Even after the show’s opening on April 30, and long after an early interview with the creative team (including veteran producers Scott Prisand and Seth Fass, and director Jeff Calhoun), I can’t honestly answer whether Elvis is literally depicted in the show. There is a guy up there who looks like Elvis, sings and dances like Elvis, and kills the performance as Elvis. I just can’t tell you who he is, exactly.
The implied tributes stray to the show’s other top-notch cast members. Colte Julian, the music director, plays a rowdy “Great Balls of Fire” on piano, same as Jerry Lee Lewis — but not by that name. Geno Henderson seems a mix of B.B. King, Chuck Berry and even James Brown. Henderson performs King’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” but duck-walks through the number as Berry would. Another area where you need to ignore logical questions and just enjoy the song.
Around the horn, credit needs to be doled out to the trio of female backing performers Jackie Wiatrowski, Tymara Walker and Fana Hughes. Billed as backing singers, they are also integral in the music and the show’s between-songs narrative. They are also called on to sing the vital “Viva Las Vegas” number. Guitarist Matt Codina, bassist Jonny Bowler and drummer Cole Maxwell make up the hammering core band.
And the set itself, designed by Emmy Award-winner Andy Walmsley, is a visual, dual-staircase masterpiece. The scene is filled with spinning Sun Records 45s, old-time audio meters and glowing neon. Walmsley never disappoints in his capacity to generate energy out of a stage.
The concept of “Heartbreak Hotel” might have been over-thought in some crucial areas. But the cast delivers, the show moves, and the music stands up. Just try not to concern yourself over the identity of the guy who looks like Elvis. All you need to know is he is still the King.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found atreviewjournal.com/podcasts.Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1on Instagram.