About 20 minutes into “Jailhouse Rock,” the latest karaoke bar passing itself off as a West End musical, a lithe and lively black performer named Gilz Terera, playing the supporting role of a prisoner known as Quickly, leads his castmates in a soaring version of “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” the song’s harmonies lifting effortlessly above the stiff-backed production. Terera, star of the Olivier Award-winning musical “Honk! The Ugly Duckling,” looks as if he is having a great time, and for as long as he holds centerstage, you might just have one, too. But plunge Terera back into the ill-accented, charmless ensemble surrounding him, and “Jailhouse Rock” loses what scant juice it has.
Reviews are irrelevant to projects like “Jailhouse Rock,” as the likes of “Tonight’s the Night,” “We Will Rock You” and to some extent even “Mamma Mia!” have already proven. Co-creators Rob Bettinson and Alan Janes hit paydirt some time back with “Buddy,” and they are no doubt counting on the Elvis Presley back catalog to set the box office no less blazingly alight. Fair enough, but must a jukebox-driven quest for a quick buck automatically preempt such considerations as a decent set, winning cast and writing that aims slightly higher than, “Keep your wheels on, daddy-o?” Apparently so, given the number of nostalgic rockers who seem not to care how their favorite hits are packaged.
Janes and Bettinson’s script follows the outlines of the 1957 Presley film while upping the musical ante. Director Bettinson’s production has 23 songs, compared to the handful in the film, and there is next to no overlap between the numbers in the movie and those in the show. Conspicuously missing is the rouser that gives the theater version its title (blame a rights dispute for the omission), which is a little like producing “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and then telling your public that you have had to forego the clap-happy number that brought them in to begin with.
But if that song isn’t to be heard, such Presley faves as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (already the title of an erstwhile West End musical), “Burnin’ Love,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Suspicious Minds” are, the latter two as part of the extended concert sequence that all but jettisons a plot whose ambitions toward moral profundity are best left unaddressed.
At its populist best, “Buddy” rocked with the sense of Buddy Holly reborn, and it’s on this front that “Jailhouse Rock” fails most. Making his West End debut inheriting Presley’s screen shoes as the incarcerated Southern crooner Vince Everett, newcomer Mario Kombou leaves a charisma-free hole at the heart of the $5 million production.
Sporting a rather severe quiff — it looks as if he stepped out of a chain-gang production of a 17th-century French play — Kombou is too polite and reined-in a presence to ignite the stage. His shimmies are as tentative as his rapport with any of the cardboard characters — the female ones are the most cringe-making — who come his way.
Kombou sings the numbers well enough, but so could any number of participants at a London pub’s Elvis night. And if you don’t engage with Vince from the outset, there’s nothing at stake when he hits the skids and is admonished to look in the mirror “and see if (he) recognize(s) the jerk looking back.” (He was visible enough to me.)
Connoisseurs of the “Tap Dogs”/”Stomp” style of percussive physicality will certainly recognize Drew Anthony’s choreography, which takes advantage of the jailhouse milieu to send the cast feverishly pounding on every available ladder, pail or bin. (Once Vince leaves prison in search of success as a singer, the inmates remain as a resident chorus, you’ll be pleased to hear.)
“Jailhouse Rock,” however, saves its truest colors for the protracted closing bop, which wants simply to eject you out of your seat and into the aisle, in the process clearing your head of anything resembling a thought.