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A&E: Elvis has left the production

August 6, 2007

For many people, the sign of a good musical is that you leave the theater humming the songs.

But what are we to make of the recent onslaught of shows where you hum the songs going in?

These "jukebox musicals" raid the song catalogues of singers, composers or bands (The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, et al.) to cobble together a score. While the practice of creating a musical out of preexisting songs goes back through music and film history (the song "Singin' in the Rain," for instance, wasn't originally written for the movie "Singin' in the Rain"), it has reached epidemic proportions thanks to the success of the ABBA-music-filled "Mamma Mia!"

"Heartbreak Hotel: The Songs of Elvis Presley" (running through Aug. 19 at the American Cabaret Theatre) is a local effort to join the fray.

Whether for legal or artistic reasons, creators Carol Worcel and Kenny Shepard refrain from adding dialogue and instead create plot out of action, location, character and lyric.

The clever set turns the stage into the titular hotel, where the love- and lust- stories of 10 characters play out to a lineup of mostly familiar songs. A woman realizes that her two-timing lover is a "hound dog." A nerd desk clerk and a sad-sack bellhop fall for a "devil in disguise." A woman in an amazingly unflattering Kathy Griffin wig "can't help falling in love" with a priest (and vice versa). A newlywed husband just wants to be his bride's "teddy bear."

Some of these plots develop. Some go nowhere. But the fundamental problem here is that the King was a performer, not a composer and the show, while purporting to celebrate his music, instead neuters it. We don't enjoy "Return to Sender" or "Hard Headed Woman" because they are great songs. We enjoy them because of the way Elvis sang them.

By taking away the Elvis style and replacing it, in large part, with performances that would not be out of place on "The Lawrence Welk Show," it's hard to find the "tribute." It's not that Elvis has left the building. It's that he doesn't seem to have been invited in the first place.

Only in brief moments does "Heartbreak Hotel" feel like the songs matter more than they do in a cruise ship show or theme park review. Most of those moments are supplied by Karlton D. Turner, who is faced with some of the more challenging moments of song justification created by the writers. "Viva Las Vegas" doesn't really have anything to do with the proceedings, but when Turner is singing it, that doesn't matter. He even manages to give a moving reading to "In the Ghetto" while robbing the other characters' rooms.

"I have not once grieved over my own dying. Never. I approach its completion with an equanimity that permits these present days to be as productive and filled with detail and experience as any other days I've lived here below."

So writes Walter Wangerin Jr., who is engaged in the greatest battle of his life.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Wangerin is a Lutheran minister and creative writing teacher at Valparaiso University. He's also the

National Book Award-winning author of "The Book of the Dun Cow," a tale that has remained in print continuously since it was first published in 1978. That's no easy feat in a climate of disposable fiction.

The simplistic description of "Dun Cow" and its sequel, "The Book of Sorrows," is that they are "Animal Farm" only with religious rather than political overtones. I don't think that goes far enough. Taken together, this tale of a petulant rooster struggling with evil both within and without is not only damn good storytelling, but also a powerful meditation on leadership, on guilt, on selfishness, on consequences both expected and unexpected, and on forgiveness.

If you don't think you are up for a story whose lead

character crows vespers and where violence and loss and pain are part of life, then, well, stay away. But I'm hoping to turn you on to them because they are among only a few books that I reread every few years, finding something new in them every time.

I recently finished them again, having found out about Wangerin's fight with cancer, which he is movingly, powerfully, and in his own style chronicling on his Web site, walterwangerinjr.org. If you or anyone you love has faced serious illness, I strongly encourage you to visit there and click on the "essays and comment" section. And if you believe Indiana should celebrate its literary lights, Wangerin should be on your radar.

You can read between the lines and see that I'm lobbying for "The Book of the Dun Cow" to be the One City/One Book title for next year. I think the honor is more-than deserved and that Indy readers will be richer for reading it.

And I'm keeping the faith that Wangerin will be here when it happens.
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