All Shook Up Inspired by and featuring the songs of Elvis Presley. Book by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreographed by Ken Roberson. Additional Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Music Supervision and Arrangements by Stephen Oremus. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Wig and hair design by David H. Lawrence. Orchestrations by Michael Gibson, Stephen Oremus. Dance music arrangements by Zane Mark. Music coordinator Michael Keller. Associate director Daniel Goldstein. Starring Jenn Gambatese, Jonathan Hadary, Leah Hocking, Curtis Holbrook, Cheyenne Jackson, Nikki M. James, John Jellison, Alix Korey, Mark Price, Sharon Wilkins. Featuring Brad Anderson, Justin Bohon, Justin Brill, Paul Castree, Cara Cooper, Michael Cusumano, Randy A. Davis, Jennie Ford, Francesca Harper, Trisha Jeffrey, Michelle Kittrell, Anika Larsen, Michael X. Martin, Karen Murphy, John Eric Parker, Justin Patterson, Jenelle lynn Randall, Michael James Scott, Jenny-Lynn Suckling, Virginia Woodruff.
Some musicals really do go that extra mile to give relevance to their titles. However, in the case of All Shook Up, which just opened at the Palace, the title is less apropos to its subject matter of a Midwest town being introduced to rock music than to San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
If the destruction here isn't total, it's close enough for theatrical purposes. Never in the brief recent history of Broadway jukebox book musicals has this much established talent been involved in the creation of so little of consequence. The flagrant misuse of (to begin with) performers as gifted as Alix Korey, Sharon Wilkins, and Leah Hocking, and of set designer David Rockwell, is alone enough to make you want to weep at the present state of Broadway musicals.
More depressing still is what this show heralds for the future, especially with regard to shows eschewing original scores in favor of cramming pre-existing pop catalogs (in this case, that of Elvis Presley) into new librettos (in this case, by Joe DiPietro). It's easy enough to write off obvious hack jobs like Mamma Mia! and Good Vibrations, which have no believable pretense of creative intent behind them. But, in its way, All Shook Up is worse: It aspires to create art from garbage, but produces only exquisitely painted trash. And too many theatergoers today can't tell the difference.
Nonetheless, credit must be given where it's due, and Rockwell deserves the lion's share for his spectacular scenic designs, which are part Technicolor eye candy, part cartoon, and part skewed-perspective expressionism. Whether taking up the full stage (a ramshackle saloon, a church with a beguilingly imposing pipe organ) or only a part of it (the interior of a shoe store, a repair shop), his sets are intricately detailed and stunningly realized onstage. David C. Woolard's palette-spanning costumes and Donald Holder's lights, while less eye-catching, also make a strong impression.
Of course, the show's most significant problem is the same one that besets all jukebox musicals: The songs have no real connection to the surrounding story. They can't advance character or story in any way, because they're not written to. Nice vocal arrangements (by Stephen Oremus), orchestrations (Oremus and Michael Gibson), spitfire direction (Christopher Ashley), and more energetic choreography than you can shake a leg at (by Ken Roberson, with additional choreography by Sergio Trujillo) can't disguise the basic fact that these aren't theatre songs and never adequately function as such.
As for DiPietro's story, it's about an unnamed town ("in the middle of a square state"), rendered inert by its puritanical mayor (Korey), that's roused to life by a motorcycle-riding, rock-and-roll-playing roustabout named Chad (Cheyenne Jackson). DiPietro tosses in some allusions to Shakespeare (most notably Twelfth Night, but also The Winter's Tale in one especially excrescent moment) and addresses a few social-consciousness issues ranging from segregation to sexual identity. (This town proves quite progressive for 1955.)
But the story is mainly about the girl who loves Chad (Natalie, played by Jenn Gambatese), the guy who loves Natalie (Dennis, Mark Price), the girl whom Chad loves (museum curator Miss Sandra, Hocking), the young interracial couple in love with each other but separated by intolerance (Lorraine and Dean, Nikki M. James and Curtis Holbrook), and middle-aged interracial single parents who love each other but won't admit it (Sylvia and Jim, Wilkins and Jonathan Hadary), and how they all get, well, shaken up together.
Count on conventional jukebox musical illogic to bring all this together. "Love Me Tender" is used as a dual "I Want" song for Natalie and Dennis; "C'Mon Everybody" is Chad's hip-swiveling introduction to the town; "It's Now or Never" is sung by a potentially parting duo; "There's Always Me" is sung for traditionally torchy reasons; and "Jailhouse Rock" is sung, well, so the cast can sing "Jailhouse Rock."
When Bye Bye Birdie covered this same territory 45 years ago, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams were able to devise a charming original score that melded the beat of rock with the utility of theatre music and a solid, funny book. DiPietro's treatment is considerably less distinguished; he demonstrated solid talent in his writing for The Thing About Men and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, but his song cues here are jarring enough to set off seismometers on the West Coast. One example: Sylvia: "So where you been all morning?" Jim: "I took some flowers to the cemetery." Sylvia: "That's what I figured -" Jim (singing): "Well since my baby left me - / I found a new place to dwell -"
Such insensate idiocy eventually becomes impossible to take without suffering at least partial brain damage; I found myself unable to stop smiling at the mounting contrivances of the second act, which was set - for reasons known only to DiPietro - almost entirely in an abandoned fairground. But such grins never translate into either laughter or pleasure; that would require real jokes and something - anything - happening onstage that can emotionally involve the viewer.
The only identifiable feeling All Shook Up evokes is pity for the cast. Korey, one of musical theatre's best belters, has little to sing and less to play as the thoroughly one-dimensional mayor. Hocking's voice is thrilling, and she's got great comic timing, but she's reduced to playing nothing more than a curvaceous plot point. Gambatese and Price, while appealing, lack the skill necessary to fake their way through their non-roles; Wilkins and Hadary fare only slightly better. Jackson sings and dances well, but seems determined to generate charisma solely from the gyration of his pelvis; he's not successful.
Of course, All Shook Up isn't about its performers, their characters, or
whatever threadbare complications DiPietro has devised for them; it's about
Elvis songs. If that's all you want, nothing of theatrical consequence will
stand in the way of your enjoying them at the Palace for the foreseeable
future. Otherwise, don't expect this flavorless musical martini to leave
you either shaken or stirred.