All Shook Up now at Ivoryton Playhouse through July 27 is one of those jukebox musicals that gives you hope for the genre. While it is not in the class of Jersey Boys or the current Broadway hit Beautiful-the Carol King Musical, it a big step ahead of many of the jukebox shows I’ve seen.
It uses the music of Elvis to tell a story that refers to so many other stories that sometimes you wonder if book writer Joe DiPietro simply threw darts at various other stage works. But rather than just using Elvis’ biggest hits, DiPietro includes a number of songs that were not number one on the hit parade. For the Elvis fan this is a delight and for those who only know the big hits, you will find some unfamiliar songs.
Take the setting, for example — it is small town America in the ’50s and the local Mayor has passed a ‘Mamie Eisenhower” ordinance that outlaws dancing, necking, rock and roll, and everything else that’s fun. (Does that remind you of Footloose?)
Then let’s move onto the plot. Natalie is a young woman with a talent for engines who longs to get out of town. Dennis is the earnest young man who loves her but can’t tell her, realizing it is not reciprocated. Chad is the guy on the motorcycle who rides into town with his guitar on his back, his tight jeans and his swivel hips. Natalie is immediately smitten as is every other girl in town. (You can fill in any number of films and musicals that use this device.)
Chad shakes things up and in desperation Natalie transforms herself into “Ed” so she can be Chad’s sidekick. In the process she stirs up some unexpected feelings in Chad and in Miss Sandra, the newly arrived “hottie” for whom Chad yearns and sends “Ed” to woo. This part of the plot references Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night among other comedies.
Then we can add in the subplots — the domineering Mayor and her son whom she keeps shipping off to military school; the young man’s attraction to a local girl; Natalie’s widower father and his romantic entanglements, and more.
What makes this show very 21st century despite it being set in the 1950s, is the emphasis on unconventional romances. Dean, the Mayor’s son falls in love with a young African American girl. Jim, Natalie’s dad ends up falling for Sylvia, the African American owner of the local bar. And Chad is willing to embrace his feelings for “Ed” — not be repelled by them.
What makes this show work at Ivoryton, in large part, is a talented and charming cast, including seven Equity performers.
As Natalie, Danielle Bowen displays a terrific voice, attractive looks and a sweetness that makes you root for her from the opening number, “Love Me Tender.” Preston Ellis as Chad has the confidence and sex appeal (and he shows that the character know it) that makes the perfect stranger-from-a-far that all the girls immediately want. He sings and swivels his hips perfectly and his smile will grab you.
But it is not just these two that make this cast so good. Nicholas Park as Dennis, the self-proclaimed “nerd” who loves Natalie from afar is not goofy but sweet. You are torn between rooting for Natalie to get Chad and for Dennis to get Natalie, the girl of his dreams.
As Miss Sandra, the sexy new woman in town, Mara Jill Herman shows she can project sex appeal with the best, particularly in “Let Yourself Go.” But this character also has some surprising depths. R. Bruce Connelly plays Natalie’s dad who is slowing starting a new life.
And in handing out the praise, you have to include Onyie as Sylvia, the bar owner, Danielle Framble as her daughter, Melissa McLean as the uptight Mayor who finally lets loose with “Devil in Disguise.” Logan Scott Mitchell who plays her son, Dean, displays great dancing ability, including a split towards the end of the show.
So is this an A plus show? Not completely, but the complaints are minor. First, since the orchestra is hidden away, sometimes the sound seems muffled — almost like it is recorded. Occasionally the direction by director/choreographer Richard Amelius is a little static: everyone is just standing and singing. Thirdly, the lighting could be more varied; several scenes that are supposedly in the evening or at night are so brightly lit you would think it was noon. But these are minor complaints and they are balanced by the terrific period costumes by Kari Crowther. I told my granddaughter these were typical of what I wore in high school.
The musical began life at the Norma Terris Theater in Chester as part of Goodspeed’s development of new musicals in 2004 before going on to Broadway in 2005 where it had a relatively brief (200+ performance) run. On Broadway, Cheyenne Jackson played Chad, the Elvis like character.
This summer you will have a rocking good time at All Shook Up.
All Shook Up is at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 27. For tickets and information contact the Playhouse at 860-767-7318 or online at http://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
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