Thursday, April 12, 2007

All Shook Up

‘ALL SHOOK UP’ delights some and shakes up others at the Palace

At the conclusion of ‘ALL SHOOK UP,’ now on stage at the Palace Theatre, half of the audience was standing and cheering. The rest were sitting, looking at the standees as if they were out of their minds. One well-known local theatre performer commented, “That was charming.” Another said, “What in heck (word change to protect the conservative readers) were the producers thinking...that was awful!”

‘ALL SHOOK UP’ is writer Joe DiPietro’s attempt to bridge together a story set in 1955 and the songs of Elvis Presley. The story line is trite, the characters are caricatures, the dancing is stylized (often done as if the cast was in an emotional time warp), the songs are blended into the dialogue with a shoe-horn, and the total effect is kitsch.

Into a small midwestern town rides Chad! He’s on a motorcycle, wears skin tight jeans, clinging t-shirt, has a twitching and thrusting pelvis, sings like a mediocre Elvis, makes women faint and scream, and causes general hyper-testosterone chaos. Before he leaves, he falls in love with a sexy female museum director (Miss Sandra), who rejects him, and then with a guy (Ed), who is actually a girl (Natalie). Ms. Sandra falls for the guy (Ed) who is really a girl (Natalie), but then switches allegiances to Dennis, a nerdy future dentist, who is in love with the girl (Natalie) but not her alter-ego, the guy (Ed). Natalie’s father is in hot pursuit of Miss Sandra, but winds up with Sylvia, the Black owner of a bar whose daughter (Lorraine) is in love with Dean, the daughter of the town’s up tight, racist mayor, Matilda. Matilda, in turn is in love with.....okay, this could go on and on, but you get the idea. ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ this is not. It doesn’t even reach the literary level of the “other” Elvis musical, ‘BYE, BYE BIRDIE.’ But it is so ditzy, that it’s funny and lends itself to moaning over the idiocy.

Wedged into the plot are numerous rock ‘n roll mega hits, including “Jailhouse Rock (where the rocker finds himself because he lead the local town boys astray),” “Heartbreak Hotel” (in this case referring to the graveyard at the end of the road) and “One Night With You” (sung in all sorts of coupling situations). At one time or another almost the entire cast wears and warbles about their “Blue Suede Shoes.”

The touring company covers the extremes of talent and background. Susan Anton, a long time Broadway star, sings up a storm as Miss Sylvia, though her acting is paper thin. Her “There’s Always Me” stopped the show. She brought down the house with her one-liner describing the parochial nature of the play’ setting: “This town makes me miss Parma.”

Professional newcomer Joe Manddragona, who plays rocker Chad, is shorter than would be expected for the macho male lead. All the females tower over him (which may have been another of those unintentionally intentional deeds of the director). He makes up for his height with smoldering good looks, a mobile pelvis and a fairly good voice. His dancing is so down pat he almost looks like a robot and some of his lines are on the same emotional level.

Dennis Moench as nerdy Dennis, has the best voice in the cast and wins over the audience with a well-defined characterization (think Eugene in ‘GREASE’ and Hugo in ‘BYE BYE BIRDIE’). His “It Hurts Me” is poignantly tender.

Jannie Jones whales as Sylvia, the bar owner, though she goes off-key in spots. Tracee Beazer is perky and sings well as Sylvia’s daughter. Jenny Fellner is undistinguished in the roles of Natalie/Ed.

The ‘ALL SHOOK UP’ band rocks, sometimes too loudly, but that only enhances the over-all effect.

Director Christopher Ashley knows what he’s doing. Taking this material seriously would have highlighted the weaknesses of the script. By playing for exaggeration, creating caricatures and making the whole experience bigger than life he creates a living comic book. The results? The audience laughs through their moans and bewilderment.

Capsule judgment: ‘ALL SHOOK UP’ is the kind of show that audiences will love or hate. It’s going to depend on your mood and expectations. If you go in knowing there is a very slight story line (and even referring to it as a story line is an exaggeration), that is both unrealistic and obvious, and just let yourself get carried away by the over-the top performances, obvious choreography and transparent means used to hook the Elvis Presley fueled songs together, you’ll have a blast. If not, you’ll leave at intermission. “C’mon Everybody” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Let Yourself Go,” and you “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with ‘ALL SHOOK UP.’