There are times when you go to the theatre with a little bit of apprehension because on paper the show that you are going to see looks like it has the potential to be very good or just very bad, but never just in the middle. “Love Me Tender” was one of those shows for me tonight, as basing a show around such well known Elvis Presley songs could very quickly have turned into bad stage karaoke. Well I am pleased to say that it is actually a very good show and if the reaction from the Playhouse audience is anything to go by, then this show is definitely a hit.
The story at first looks very simple and pretty much revolves around Chad (Ben Lewis), a motorcycle riding roustabout bringing his music and himself to pretty much wherever he ends up. The visual imagery of Chad’s character pretty much comes from the 1964 Elvis film Roustabout (far from one of his better films).
We open in jail with the inmates covering predictably Jailhouse Rock, but it was very well done and well choreographed (Karen Bruce). This was always going to be a little difficult to cover on-stage as that song from the classic “Jailhouse Rock” film is one of the iconic visual moments in the Elvis catalogue, and it was in part choreographed by Elvis himself. This is where we meet Chad for the first time as he leaves jail after a week there for a minor offence and heads to the next place his motorcycle takes him. That place turns out to be an un-named small town where he leaves his motorcycle for some repairs with girl mechanic Natalie (Laura Tebbutt). Nothing much happens in this town and it is under the strict moral policing of Mayor Matilda Hyde (Sian Reeves) and Sheriff Earl (Chris Howell). Natalie falls in love at “first sight” with Chad (who has no interest in her) and this is where our story really starts.
We meet all of our characters very early on, and they are Dennis (Mark Anderson), Sylvia (Mica Paris) Lorraine (Sylvia’s daughter played by Aretha Ayeh), Mechanic Jim (Natalie’s father played by Shaun Williamson), Museum Lady Miss Sandra (Kate Tydman) and Dean Hyde (The Mayor’s son, played by Felix Mosse).
At first, I thought this was a fairly simple story just holding some great songs together, but as the show went on I realised that was not correct. This is a tale of boy meets girl, yes, but along the way some interesting relationships open up and having introduced us to our central characters right at the start, we are given enough time and information about them to watch their characters develop and care a bit about them as an audience. The use of new love, lost love, unrequited love, and double identity characters is almost Shakespearean in its approach and that is suitable as a sonnet from Shakespeare plays a pivotal part in the story line. There are also more serious subjects introduced into the story line such as racial tensions and bigotry, and fulfilling ones dream given the chance to do so.
Period wise, and judging from the great sets and costumes (I want that juke-box) by Morgan Large and Vicky Gill, we are set somewhere in the early 1960s, and although many of the songs used tonight come from the late 1950s/early 1960s, some are a bit later than this. A few songs are very obvious in their use, some are very surprising, but they all fit in very well to the story line.
Ben Lewis as Chad gets to cover some great Elvis songs, but my favourite from the show from him was a fine version of “If I Can Dream”. This is one of my favourite songs of all time and the gospel inspired performance Elvis gives of it in his 1968 television comeback special is just amazing. With the issues of race and civil rights raised in this show, this song is particularly important as it contains quotes from Martin Luther King Jnr. A great song even if it is slightly outside of the time frame that we seem to be in. Chad had some great songs to sing, but in parts the character just never seemed to sit comfortably in that charming ladies’ man that he was supposed to be. I have no idea why, just that little something was not there. Most of the time though, Chad was on fine form. The character did seem a bit of a mixture though of Elvis meets the Fonz in parts, and the show did have that “Happy Days” feel to it at times.
Kate Tydman as Miss Sandra gets a few great songs to do here, but for me the interesting one was the way the show used “Hound Dog” for her character. Instead of the very altered and watered down lyrics of the Elvis classic, we were given the original blues lyrics from the Big Mama Thornton original song.
Another of my favourite songs of all time “Can’t Help Falling In Love” played a recurring part throughout the show, but the definitive version of this classic from the 1961 film Blue Hawaii came tonight from a wonderful soulful rendition by Mica Paris.
Laura Tebbutt as Natalie was just right for the part and for some of the comedy parts. You need to see the show, as telling you what happens will spoil things a bit. Laura of course put in some great songs too.
There is a surprising set piece (well for me) from Sian Reeves as the Mayor using “The Devil in Disguise” and cleverly used to highlight some major issues that the show was addressing.
Mark Anderson as Dennis is for me a more interesting person than Chad in many ways (non-lead roles often are) and he gets to play a far more sensitive character. He also has a great voice used well on some of the more blues themed songs of this show.
Mica Paris was certainly the “soul voice” of this show and as well as a fine stage performance, put in a great vocal performance all night.
Stealing the show for me a bit though was Aretha Ayeh as Lorraine. Great vocal and a huge amount of energy.
There was also a lot of comedy in this show and Shaun Williamson was outstanding in his part as Jim. Comedy is always a very fine line and Shaun seems to have the balance perfect here. He also puts in some nice vocals too.
I have only covered a few of the classic songs in this show (or this would be a huge review), but there are many other classics here used in a very thoughtful way in the story line. This is not (as some shows of this type can be) just dropping a song in and making it “almost fit” the plot. The songs used here have a real place in the tale.
This is a show on two levels. On one level it is just a fun story line with a comedy element wrapped round some great Elvis songs. But scratch away a few layers and there are some serious topics being opened up on stage.
A great show and the addition of a discreet but live band helped enormously to bring the music to life tonight...a great cast also helped a lot too.