Tuesday, June 17, 2008

(belated) review of *All Shook Up*

through Saturday, June 21, at CdA Summer Theatre

In the middle of an evening of mindless fun, the first-act closing number in *All Shook Up* provides a touching moment. After all the unrequited love-longing has been set up — boy loves girl, girl loves another boy, but he loves yet another girl, and so on — singers appear, one after another, sharing Elvis’ love-ache, one line after another: “Wise men say / Only fools rush in / But I can’t help falling in love with you....” It’s a vision of communal loneliness, an assembly of yearning — and, as simply staged by director Roger Welch, quite beautiful. All we need — and want — is love.
A show like *All Shook Up* — a musical with songs that are all Elvis, all the time — has to past two jukebox-musical tests: How good is the story that’s wrapped around the songs? And wouldn’t you be better off just playing your old records?
Joe DiPietro’s book of the musical straddles the line between hokeyness and the kind of self-deprecating fun that undermines excessive sentimentality. There’s too much eye-rolling exposition (“Dad, you sure seem lonely ever since Mom died,” or some equally convenient explanation). Hokey it can be, but there’s also a lot of fun in all the self-mocking jokes that provide the next guitar-chord setup for a beloved Elvis song.
It can be disappointing, at least initially, to hear those opening chords and not hear the voice of the King himself. “Love Me Tender” as a duet? When “Hound Dog” is divided up among several singers, you’ve got too many people up there who ain’t never caught a rabbit and ain’t no friend of … ours?
Dane Stokinger isn’t going to make anybody forget Elvis, but who could ever do that? He isn’t attempting an impersonation anyway. But Stokinger does play to his strengths, which are physical comedy, “jiggily-wiggily” dance movements (he’s all pelvis!), and a great way with those quizzical, self-deprecating remarks. We miss Presley’s deep baritone on “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” but Stokinger’s higher, flightier voice fits in with his characterization of the macho roustabout who’s puzzled by this little town and its funny little men who act like women.
That’s because DiPietro (*Over the River and Through the Woods*) borrows plot elements from Shakespearean comedy: pairs of mismatched lovers chase one another through the night while women disguised as men implore their would-be boyfriends start their wooing right here and now.

To supplement the Elvis soundtrack, director Welch adds plenty of inventive staging. As Chad the roustabout, Stokinger arrives in town astride a motorcycle — in front of a clever back-projection of a rolling country road. There’s a visible quick change that transforms at least one bobby-soxer in this repressed burg from drab to ebullient, just like that. Provocative statutes in an art museum become even more provocative. There’s an interracial romance between a couple of swell kids (Jadd Davis and Melanie L. Gaskins) that’s played out, comic book-style, in a race between a bus and a bicycle. (The bicycle loses, but what’s gained is comedy that makes the seriousness of the anti-discrimination message stand out by contrast all the more.) When the Davis and Gaskins stand up for themselves in a world twisted by prejudice and sing “If I Can Dream,” the entire number becomes a plea for racial harmony. In a crowd of demonstrators behind a scrim, Welch even editorializes by inserting a Barack Obama campaign sign: “Change That We Can Believe In.” Yet he sets up the serious political message with a comic introduction: At the abandoned fairgrounds where everyone has escaped for just one night in 1955, Elvis/Chad pops up between the hand-holding teens, right there in the Tunnel of Love. Just before that, for “Devil in Disguise,” Welch had five angels loosen their robes to reveal another side of their personalities. Visual surprises like these help enliven the plot’s silly proceedings. Overall, the production lacks the kind of rambunctious joy that so many of the songs strive for: Despite the innocent post-war setting and plea for ethnic acceptance, Hairspray this is not. But in its best moments, CdA’s Elvis musical is more engaging than listening to Elvis records at home alone.
As the love interest who masquerades as a grease monkey just to get closer to Chad-on-a-motorcycle, Krystle Armstrong has plenty of spunk — enough to set up the closing image of a young woman who’s independent enough now to set out on the road with or without a man.
Supporting roles are solid. As the bar owner and local cynic, Deidra Grace shines when she steps up and belts “There’s Always Me.” As Dennis, the nerd who loves Natalie from a distance, Matt Wade gets the most out of his horn-rim glasses and slumped posture. He’s just excited enough to be named the Roustabout’s guitar-slinging sidekick that it makes sense later on when he loses Natalie but gains enough self-confidence to make Miss Sandra swoon over his love of poetry. As Miss Sandra, the only person with any sophistication in this dust-blown Midwestern town, Charissa Bertels makes it clear that she’s not about to fall for some motorcycle monkey in a black leather jacket. In “The Power of My Love,” Bertels plays the sexy siren as she corkscrews her knees into the ground, hands caressing her hips as she belts the tune and then makes a Mae West exit.
Chris Thompson’s 11-piece orchestra provides the appropriate sax riffs and guitar-strumming intros, while Cammie Hendry’s choreography sticks to the doo-wop basics: fingers splayed, shoulders shimmied, girls rolled over backs and flung between the male dancers’ legs.
There’s still the problem, however, of al those Elvis songs being danced and sung without Elvis. When 20 people start crooning in “Heartbreak Hotel” about how lonely they are, you wonder why all these characters don’t just starting looking around, right next to them, for companions.
Then again, by the evening’s end, several of them have succeeded nicely. In fact, by the end of *All Shook Up,* so many couples are pairing off, it’s like a convention of rabbits. Elvis always did have that kind of effect on people.

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