All Shook Up - It's the plot that's shaky

Marcus Crowder - Bee Theater Critic

If you've ever wanted to see something go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, you should check out "All Shook Up!" That would pretty much be the main reason to see the curiously conceived musical now playing at the Community Center Theater.

"Fueled by the songs of Elvis Presley!" is the type of advertising copy that might get fans of the King into the theater. However, the alternately hackneyed and bizarre story line from uninspired book writer Joe DiPietro (of the terminally ubiquitous "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") will leave Elvis fans scratching their heads.

The music isn't performed as Elvis would have done it -- unless the arrangements are a clever homage to his glittery white jumpsuit with the big bell-bottoms and even bigger wingtip collar of the Las Vegas era. But before going too far afield, let's acknowledge that the songs arranged by Stephen Oremus and orchestrated by Oremus and Michael Gibson aren't the problem here.

What doesn't work is DiPietro's limp plot of threadbare musical comedy clichés gerrymandered with Elvis-associated songs, then surrealistically skewered with some simply absurd plot points.

In fact, the music works as well as rock reformatted for the musical theater stage has any right to. Anyone who had the misfortune to sit through "Lennon" (the jukebox musical based on songs by the former Beatle), as I did, knows how pop music can be bludgeoned into submission for misguided theatrical purposes.

And the performances from the talented cast are mostly first-rate, with strong vocals from the actor-singers. Joe Mandragona, as the hunky Elvis stand-in Chad, carries an effortless, self-effacing charm, singing in an "Elvis-like" style that has just the right amount of reverence for the original without being slavish or a caricature.

He's the motorcycle-riding "roustabout" who rides into an unnamed Midwestern town in 1955 and unsettles the tightly wound folk there. (Never mind that many of the musical's tunes come from well after 1955.)

Jenny Fellner as the Chad- smitten Natalie and Dennis Moench as the Natalie-smitten Dennis also give solid performances. Adding real vitality is Valisia Lekae Little as the dreamy Lorraine, while Jannie Jones as Lorraine's mother, Sylvia, stops the show with a stunning version of the torchy "There's Always Me." Jones' bluesy, heartfelt reading comes out of nowhere in a production that, at its best, has an occasional kitschy charm. Susan Anton, still as tall as ever, shows a respectable voice as a sexy museum director who shakes up the men wherever she goes.

Despite the hardworking performers' best efforts, there are too many moments of absolute what-were-they-thinking disbelief contributed by director Christopher Ashley and writer DiPietro.

Ashley's staging has awkward geography and jagged, disconcerting tempos, with characters wandering back and forth from the wings, in and out of scenes. A fantasy scene for "(You're the) Devil in Disguise" makes no sense, and in a later love scene, stage fog makes a wholly gratuitous appearance.

DiPietro, on the other hand, goes out on a limb with the story and saws it off behind him. He creates a ham-handed plot point concerning interracial dating that could have been resolved more believably by the appearance of aliens in a spaceship than by his fantastic revelations. There also is a "Twelfth Night" twist with Natalie dressing up as a guy so she can hang out with Chad, a plot point that careens off the road into an abyss of absurdity.

With so many songs jammed into the plot -- including "Jailhouse Rock," "Heartbreak Hotel," "That's All Right" and "Don't Be Cruel" -- it's a wonder, and perhaps a blessing, that "In the Ghetto" didn't make the cut.

Source:, 28 Jan 2007

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