Desert Companion

Critic's Notebook: He's Baaack ...

… At least for a minute, as a new show tries to revive Elvis in a town that may no longer need him

You have to wonder if Elvis has become an empty jumpsuit in Las Vegas. A piece of sequined pop art. A promotional tool most valued for that “Viva Las Vegas” song. It’s easier to find him on Fremont Street than a stage these days.

Recent attempts to restore Elvis Presley to living, breathing credibility haven’t shaken the city’s hips. Viva Elvis was Cirque du Soleil’s first Las Vegas flop, running about two and a half years before closing in 2012. Westgate Las Vegas (which Elvis knew as the Las Vegas Hilton) tried to bring him home in 2015, in partnership with Presley’s estate. But a tribute show was gone in a heartbeat, and a 28,000-square-foot museum closed in less than a year.

Has Las Vegas moved on? Treated Elvis like an imploded casino, throwing away his legacy now that the Strip doesn’t need him anymore? Here’s where we should say, “A new show will give us the answer.” Trouble is, it won’t.

Heartbreak Hotel at Harrah’s Las Vegas is a surprise. And not just because this isn’t your standard impersonator revue, but a respectable ensemble piece with a Broadway director (Jeff Calhoun of Newsies). The bigger departure is that it’s devoted to Presley’s rise and early career, making only passing reference to the jumpsuit era of 1969-76, when Elvis exploded fire codes at the Hilton and dragged the Strip out of its post-Rat Pack slump.

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Heartbreak sometimes plays like Viva Elvis without the acrobatics. Both spread the songs out among strong performers, rather than giving them all to the Elvis character. Here, that is Eddie Clendening, employing a “one foot in” approach that doesn’t seem as though he is clear about how much he is supposed to impersonate versus just voicing the songs.

This one, too, is sanctioned by the estate keepers, Authentic Brands Group, which means amazing photos and historical detail. (The segment covering Elvis’ underwhelming Vegas debut includes a projected headline of Las Vegas Sun and Variety columnist Bill Willard’s original 1956 review.) But narration replaces the dialogue of the more interesting Million Dollar Quartet, which played on the same stage for nearly four years. Calhoun says he wasn’t creatively handcuffed by the estate, but there’s no passion to the recited history, which borders on classroom lecture.

If you can forgive the slight to Vegas, it’s because Heartbreak attempts to rebuild Elvis from the ground up and remind us why we cared in the first place. It’s roots-rock authentic and soulful; no Las Vegas production has ever acknowledged the huge role black performers such as Alberta Hunter and B.B. King played in shaping Elvis’ sound. This one does.

 But it shares a mistake with Viva Elvis in forgetting that with Elvis, it was the singer, not the songs. Maybe the city, too. You go to Nashville, Memphis, or Austin for rockabilly. At the Hilton, Elvis casually tossed off the ’50s hits before diving into “Suspicious Minds” or “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” The lush arrangements and sexy horns tied the city’s crooner past to the jumpsuit kitsch and sweaty scarves of its then ’70s present.

Sure, you can argue that Vegas is gone, but Elvis is eternal and universal. But even in a Vegas trying to forget him, we’ll find out if there’s a limit to how much good taste people will tolerate in an Elvis show.

Heartbreak Hotel Harrah’s Las Vegas, 8p nightly, 3p Sun., $49-$125,

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