Love Me Tender (Tour)
The Elvis musical hits all the right notes
Oh my, this show is fun. Right from the off, we're into the realms of high camp and pelvic frolics as that (infamous) line "...the cutest jailbird I ever did see..." plays out in all its graphic glory.
Leaving jail is Chad (Ben Lewis), a self-confessed roustabout, all quiff, leather and baby-blue eyes, who pitches up at A-small-you-never-heard-of-town-somewhere-in-the-mid-west, where solace can be found at the bottom of a bottle and people's lives chunter on in a drawling torpor. Into the saloon bar he rolls, guitar slung over shoulder, looking for 'burning love' and a good time. Cue instead mayhem and the plot of Twelfth Night on moonshine.
Geeky Dennis (Mark Anderson) is in love with feisty Natalie (Laura Tebbutt), who falls for Chad who falls in love with Ed (Natalie, disguised as a boy), whose Dad (Shaun Williamson) falls for saloon bar owner Sylvia (Mica Paris). Then there's the cultivated Miss Sandra (Kate Tydman), the original object of desire of Chad and the Dad, but she loves Natalie (disguised as Ed), while all the time Dean (Felix Mosse) and Lorraine (Aretha Ayeh) are getting it on.
Don't let all these shenanigans put you off: it's a glorious cavalcade of mistaken identity, gender confusion and Cupidian thunderbolts conveyed with a remarkable exuberance and panache that never lets it get bogged down. The book is pin-sharp, crackling with some genuinely funny lines, and really very clever. Never afraid to send up the context it finds itself in or to confront some thorny subjects head on with a smile on its face.
And then there's the music. The "Love Me Tender" refrain peppers the action: hauntingly on a flute here, in a snatch of song there, but the real star of the show is "Can't Help Falling in Love"; I defy you not to at least whimper when you hear it strike up. Unlike some other jukebox musicals, Elvis' songs are a perfect complement to the narrative and to the emotions of the well-crafted characters.
Karen Bruce's direction and choreography are equally impeccable, finding a youthful pace and vigour that's perfectly suited to the story. And the cast are uniformly superb.
No-one does hang-dog better than Shaun Williamson: his neck quite literally sinks into his shoulders as he speaks, so when the hang-dog becomes a hound-dog we're rooting for him right down to his new blue suedes.
His squat sweetness is a foil for Mica Paris' gloriously statuesque Sylvia, patron of the saloon bar, a force of nature with a voice that could blow the doors off the fire exits at the back of the auditorium. When she opens her arms and lets loose with it, the audience visibly levitates. Witnessing this alone is worth the price of a ticket.
The rest of the leads and the entire ensemble sing and dance for their lives. If producer Adam Spiegel could bottle just some of the essence of Love Me Tender and sell it in the foyer after the show, he'd have an even bigger success on his hands.
Love Me Tender runs at Manchester Opera House until 13 June, before touring the UK