REVIEW: Love Me Tender, Manchester Opera Hour ✭✭✭✭✭

Love Me Tender currently touring the UK
Laura Tebbutt (natalie) and Ben Lewis (Chad). Photo: Johan Persson

Love Me Tender
Manchester Opera House
8 June 2015
5 Stars

In 2004, a new jukebox musical called All Shook Up hit Broadway. Utilising Elvis Presley’s catalogue of classic songs, with a book by Joe DiPietro based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, it won a 2005 Theatre World Award for Cheyenne Jackson.

Fast forward to 2015, and the show complete with new title Love Me Tender is undertaking a major UK Tour with direction and choreography by Karen Bruce.

Set in the 1950’s, somewhere in the American Midwest, Love Me Tender is the story of Chad, a rock’n’roll loving, self-confident roustabout who on release from prison travels to a nearby little town, which is in dire need of some life. The town is under the control of Mayor Matilda Hyde, who has introduced the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act, outlawing “loud music, public necking and tight pants”. It’s a dreary old place and Chad wastes no time in working his magic.

Chad’s arrival sparks interest from certain female elements in the town and as with Twelfth Night, the crossed-wires, misunderstandings and a case of mistaken identity that occurs due to cross-dressing doesn’t help matters. The townsfolk are lovestruck.

DiPietro’s book provides ample comedy, and just the right dose of emotion to keep the audience on-side. Bruce’s direction and choreography keep the pace going throughout, with enough sigh gags to confirm that her tongue is very firmly planted in her cheek throughout. The result is an enormously entertaining night in the theatre that had audiences on their feet at the end.

Love Me Tender benefits enormously from the catalogue of Elvis songs that keep the show bopping along from start to finish. The score includes Jailhouse Rock, Heartbreak Hotel, Follow That Dream, Hound Dog, It’s Now Or Never, Love Me Tender, Blue Suede Shoes, Can’t Help Falling In Love, All Shook Up, (You’re the) Devil in Disguise, Fools Fall I Love and A Little Less Conversation. It’s a phenomenal catalogue of some of the greatest songs ever written and they are employed to great effect throughout. Combined with a talented cast and some great orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Matt Spencer Smith and you have the basis for a great jukebox musical.

As Chad, Aussie actor Ben Lewis is full of swagger with a glorious voice, his hip-swivelling machismo channelling Arthur Fonzarelli at times, melting hearts at others. It’s a charismatic, assured performance that makes this actor one to watch out for.

Mica Paris plays Sylvia, bar owner and mother of Lorraine. Her vocals are pure soul and I dare anybody not to be immensely moved when she lets go with her devine renditions of Elvis classics including Fools Fall In Love. Stand back, this lady will blow you away.

Shaun Williamson takes on the role of Jim, a widower whose daughter Natalie is the town mechanic. It’s a great performance from an actor who is often under appreciated. Laura Tebbutt plays daughter Natalie, who cross-dresses to get closer to Chad, providing some of the evening’s comic highlights. There is a genuine chemistry in this relationship that makes this father/daughter duo unbeatable.

Aretha Ayeh plays Lorraine, rebellious daughter of Sylvia. There are a few moments where this character gets to shine vocally and you just know there’s a future talent ready to erupt here.

Love Me Tender currently touring the UK
Shaun Williamson (jim) and Mica Paris (Sylvia). Photo: Johan Persson

Of course, all good love triangles need a third party and Mark Anderson as Dennis delivers just the right mix of humour and pathos to have the audience behind him as he battles to win Natalie’s heart. It’s one of those great character parts but Anderson backs it up with a great vocal that has the audience backing the nerd.

It’s a strong cast that has no visible weak links. Performances by Sian Reeves (Mayor Matilda Hyde), Chris Howell (Sheriff Earl), Felix Mosse (Dean Hyde) and Kate Tydman (Miss Sandra), round out the line up of principal characters making this a cast to be reckoned with.

Not to forget the hard-working ensemble of Sophie Ayers, Jamie Hughes- Ward, Will Jeffs, Jacob Maynard, Matthew McKenna, Elliot Powell, Stephanie Rojas, Ruthie Stephens, Paulo Teixeira, Lindsay Tierney, Sharron Wattis and T’Shan Williams. There is a great vibe onstage with this group of committed performers.

Set Designer Morgan Large provides the cast with a suitably flexible space on which to play. Starting as a stark prison, to ram-shackle town complete with a tiny Texaco, to abandoned fun park, it completely compliments the on stage action without taking over from the performances. Large’s colour palette compliments the costumes designed by Vicky Gill, which come to life on Chad’s arrival through some neat reversible jackets and tear away skirts.

Musical Director Patrick Hurley keeps the pace brisk and the joint rocking throughout. Special praise must be afforded to Sound Designer Richard Booker for one of the best balanced sound mixes I’ve experienced of late. Not a word was lost and the dynamics of the rock and roll score remained intact. Bravo!

Producer Adam Spiegel is on a winner with Love Me Tender. It’s almost impossible not be on your feet by the end of the show cheering on this cast of talented performers. Love Me Tender must be West End bound. I’d take a bet that it will find a home in the West End following its current tour. A 5 Star Hit! Don’t Miss It!


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