Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In recent years, the proliferation of the "jukebox musical," a show incorporating existing songs into a story or showcase, has brought both hits (Jersey Boys, Movin' Out) and flops (Lennon, Good Vibrations, The Times They Are A Changin') to Broadway. Even though All Shook Up, which incorporates songs made famous by Elvis Presley, failed to succeed in New York, it was actually one of the better examples of the genre. As seen now at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, the piece lacks depth and any sense of reality, but scores lots of points for fun and entertainment.
All Shook Up uses a story about a motorcycle riding "roustabout" who comes into a small Midwestern town in 1955 and shakes the residents out of their repressed doldrums. With his magic touch to stir up love and music within everyone, multiple romantic entanglements ensue everywhere.
The book of the musical by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) wisely never takes itself too seriously. With a knowing wink, the story is purposely cheesy in spots, which makes some of the absurd plot twists and unbelievable girl-in-disguise-as-a-guy device palatable. Even with the corny and fantasy-heavy book, All Shook Up has likeable characters, honest emotions, a fun and funny tone, and a moral center that address such issues as acceptance and tolerance of interracial couples and differing sexual orientations. And, the transitions from book scenes to songs occur more organically than most jukebox shows, including the king of all such musicals, Mamma Mia!.
The songs that Elvis made famous were written by a smorgasbord of composers and lyricists. The score has a needed theatrical flavor thanks to some deliciously wonderful vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus and Michael Gibson that make many of the numbers sound fresh and new. Song highlights include "Love Me Tender," "Jailhouse Rock," a fun combination of "Teddy Bear"/"Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," "If I Can Dream," and a beautiful choral arrangement of "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You." As with any jukebox musical, however, it is hard to overlook song lyrics that don't fit either the story or the characters since they weren't written in that context.
Even though the touring cast can't quite match the performances turned in by their original Broadway counterparts, they are still each very talented and perform capably. Joe Mandragona has the charisma and voice to tackle the rebel character and Elvis songs as Chad. Jenny Fellner is a spunky, endearing leading lady as Natalie and displays a confident singing voice. Susan Anton supplies some star power and possesses stronger than expected vocals. Dennis Moench (Dennis) is a likeable comic nerd and likewise sings well. Valisa Lekae Little (Lorraine) and CCM grad Brian Sears (Dean) appealingly portray the juvenile would-be lovers, and have some of the best musical moments in the show. In some of the more mature roles, Jannie Jones (Sylvia), Wally Dunn (Jim), David Beniot (Sheriff Earl), and Beth Glover (Mayor Matilda) get lots of laughs, with the women showcasing some splendid singing. The hard-working ensemble deserves praise as well.
Director Christopher Ashley has made some adjustments to the staging and book since Broadway, all to the betterment of the show. The tone is appropriately loose, lively, whimsical, and knowingly campy. Several scenes, including the ones featuring "It's Now or Never" and "Let Yourself Go," are staged with ingenuity and flair. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is sexy, appropriate, and well executed. David Pepin conducts the rocking pit band.
David Rockwell's set has some attractive act one designs reminiscent of his excellent work on Hairspray, but his act two pieces for an abandoned amusement park could be better. The lighting by Donald Holder is flashy and active, and the costumes by David C. Woolard suitably evoke a fantasy version of the 1950s.
All Shook Up seeks to be a fun and entertaining showcase of songs by Elvis. It succeeds in accomplishing this in the national tour, thanks in part to its worthwhile cast and not-to-serious approach in forming a story around the songs. The tour continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through March 11, 2007. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.-- Scott Cain