Review: Love Me Tender

LOVE ME TENDER,                         , Director and Choreographer - Karen Bruce, Set design - Morgan Large, Costume design - Vicky Gill, Lighting - James Whiteside, Manchester Opera House, Manchester ,2015,  Credit: Johan Persson/
LOVE ME TENDER, , Director and Choreographer - Karen Bruce, Set design - Morgan Large, Costume design - Vicky Gill, Lighting - James Whiteside, Manchester Opera House, Manchester ,2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

The King of Rock may be dead, but long live the King! Well that’s how last night’s audience seemed to react as they filed out of Milton Keynes Theatre with those songs made famous by Elvis Presley still ringing in their ears.

Having played Broadway back in 2005 under the title ‘All Shook Up’, the show has been recently resurrected as Love Me Tender. It’s another jukebox-style feelgood musical with a storyline that has a striking resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

However in Love Me Tender, author Joe DiPietro brings us a tale of a former prison bad boy looking to make good which is set against a musical background of 25 Elvis hits. In fact you Can’t Help Falling in Love with it!

Naturally Love Me Tender kicks off with the rousing Jailhouse Rock although the build up to it was rather tedious and boring as the actors slowly make their away onto the set before the song actually begins.

However the Tony Award winning writer finds plenty of other opportunities to bring us Presley classics like Heartbreak Hotel, It’s Now Or Never, That’s All Right, Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes – the blue suede footwear theme runs throughout the show.

Fresh from her attempts to win a place in BBC television’s Celebrity Masterchef final, Mica Paris is back from what seems to be a musical sabbatical to play American small town bar owner Sylvia. In fact it’s a town with just one horse!

The platinum selling singer is right on track with her bluesy renditions of Elvis’ Fools Fall in Love while she also leads the cast in Can’t Helping Falling In Love which is probably the best received number in the whole show. It brings the curtain down on the first act and is repeated again in the second.

Meanwhile the dark, smouldering motorcycling bad boy is a ‘roustabout’ called Chad who is played by Ben Lewis whose credits include The Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Opera sequel, Love Never Dies.

In this show he plays the pelvis-swivelling stranger who rides into town to set hearts a fluttering and tongue’s a wagging and he really shakes things up much as Elvis did for real in the mid-1950s. In fact he could be the Devil in Disguise!

With a great voice and looks to match, 35-year-old Lewis (who grew up in Western Australia) certainly wows the on stage ladies while his mannerisms bore a striking resemblance to the King of Rock ‘n Roll himself.

Looking to get a second chance in this midwest US town – where love and affection displayed in public had been outlawed by spoilsport town mayor Matilda Hyde (comically played by Emmerdale’s Sian Reeves) – the guitar-playing Chad begins to change all that as he shakes things up.

However one audience member said afterwards that she thought Ben looked ‘a little too old’ to play the part as Elvis was still only a teenager when he rocked into the limelight!

Sian Reeves (who played Sally Spode in Emmerdale) gave us an excellent comic solo with Devil in Disguise in which she bobbed up and down surrounded by members of the ensemble and swing all dressed in red as angels or hooded Klu Klux Klan characters. Her character also ignored political correctness – which didn’t actually exist in the 1950s – as she referred to ‘coloureds’ and mixed race marriages.

There are misunderstandings galore, mistaken identities and cross dressing plus love scenes and comedy moments by the bucket load, much of the latter provided by Mark Anderson who plays unlucky in love pushover, Dennis.

Anderson has an excellent voice which was used very little as a solo which seemed a shame while former EastEnders star Shaun Williamson plays widower Jim, the father of the show’s female lead, local tomboy mechanic Natalie. And for those who didn’t realise Shaun could sing, they’re in for a treat … he certainly can!

Natalie is well played by Laura Tebbutt who is usually dressed in greasy mechanic’s overalls while she uses her dress to wipe down motorcycle engines. She is smitten by the handsome Chad although he doesn’t see her in quite the same way… and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why!

I was particularly impressed with the voice of Aretha Ayeh who plays Sylvia’s teenage daughter Lorraine. She falls in love with the mayor’s son Dean Hyde played by Felix Mosse who decides to miss his bus instead of rejoining the Army and to stay in town to be with Lorraine.

The other cast members worthy of mention were Kate Tydman who plays Miss Sandra, the town’s museum curator. She’s also the original love interest of Chad, while Sheriff Earl (played by Chris Howell) literally stands and chews all the way through the show almost until the final act. And that’s when he finally tells Mayor Matilda to ‘shut up’ before asking her to marry him. Howell also has a strong melodic voice which sadly didn’t get much of an airing until the last few minutes.

There’s some clever minimalist stage management which allows sets to change fairly seamlessly as the show goes on uninterrupted. The dance sequences are well rehearsed and performed while the six-piece orchestra in the pit, under the guidance of musical director Patrick Hurley, never missed a beat.

Love Me Tender is directed and choreographed by Karen Bruce (Saturday Night Fever and Dance ‘Til Dawn) and produced by Robert G Bartner and Adam Spiegel … they’re the pair who recently brought The Jersey Boys, The Rocky Horror Show, West Side story and Hairspray to the Milton Keynes stage. Looking back, I seem to have seen so many jukebox-style musicals featuring songs from the likes of Abba, Buddy Holly, Rod Stewart, Queen and now Elvis, so maybe I could borrow a rocking chair, some old 1960s jumpers and come up with a storyline based on the songs of the late Val Doonican!

Love Me Tender plays the new city venue until this Saturday (August 1) at 7.30pm each evening with matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday. Ticket prices start from £17 and can be booked by calling the box office on 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes booking fees of £2.85 applying to all.