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Chicago by John Olson

All Shook Up

Also see John's review of Spamalot

For the past month, All Shook Up has been sort of the poor cousin to the other pre-Broadway tryout in town, Monty Python’s Spamalot. The latter has been a near sellout while the former has occasionally had half-price tickets available. At All Shook Up’s January 13 press preview, there were even some empty seats. This is all about to change. All Shook Up looks ready to be a big Broadway hit and isn’t likely to be compared to Spamalot again after the two open one week apart from each other in mid-March.

With a score taken entirely from the hits of Elvis Presley, it will, of course, be compared to the current monster hit of jukebox musicals, Mamma Mia!, and the next one scheduled to open on Broadway, Good Vibrations. Readers: if the reports you have heard (or will hear after Good Vibrations’ planned February 1 opening) might tempt a rant or a campaign against the jukebox musical - or worse, a major depression over the fate of Broadway - wait until March 24th before doing anything rash. For all those who have said something like “I’m not opposed to jukebox musicals as long as they’re done well,” All Shook Up is the sort of show you were picturing. It delivers all the main ingredients of a big entertaining Broadway musical with creativity and style.

To begin with, the book by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, The Thing About Men) is Shakespeare compared to the book of Mamma Mia!. No, really, it literally is because the main premise, in which a woman poses as a man to win the love of a man, is taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In an unnamed, very small Midwestern town in 1955, Natalie (Jenn Gambatese) works as a mechanic in her father’s auto shop and yearns for an exciting lover after her sister gets married. An Elvis-like roustabout named Chad (Cheyenne Jackson) comes to town and seems to be just the ticket, but she can’t get his attention. When her nerdy secret admirer Dennis (Mark Price) suggests that Chad, “a man’s man,” might like to have a friendship with another “man’s man,” Natalie poses as a rough and tumble guy by the name of Ed. Chad talks “Ed” into helping him woo Miss Sandra (Leah Hocking), the newly arrived sexy curator of the local museum, but Miss Sandra manages to fall for “Ed” instead. This is further complicated by the fact that Natalie’s widowed father Jim (Jonathan Hadary) has taken his own fancy to the woman. In addition to these romantic complications, Chad earns the ire of the evil Mayoress (taken from Shakespeare's Anyone Can Whistle) by convincing the townspeople to defy her ban on dancing (taken from Shakespeare’s Footloose).

Most of the transitions between DiPietro’s book scenes and the Elvis songs in act one are as abrupt and awkward as they are in Mamma Mia!. Even so, we’re quickly won over by a more interesting set of characters, the inventive choreography of Ken Roberson (Avenue Q) and the colorful, retro set designed by Hairspray’s David Rockwell. Rockwell’s designs are always fun, whether just a roll-on piece for the garage using old logos of Mobil, Texaco and Firestone; or the full-scale, racially integrated bar owned by African-American Sylvia (Sharon Wilkins), who, by the way, has an unspoken “thing” for Jennifer’s dad Jim. Elvis fans waiting to hear his greatest hits get an earful right up front, with the likes of “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Return to Sender” following in close succession. The strong solos and choral work are accompanied by Michael Gibson’s orchestrations, which amazingly meld a Broadway sound with a ’50s rock and roll vocabulary, and never sound forced in doing so. Stephen Oremus (arranger and orchestrator for Avenue Q) conducts and did the impressive vocal arrangements and music direction.

All Shook Up
Cheyenne Jackson and Company

In act two, though, unless you’re a true Elvis scholar, you might swear you’re at an original Broadway musical. Having established the premise and characters neatly in the first act, DiPietro is able to integrate music and dialogue much more organically. It helps that the second act songs are less well known (with a few exceptions like the title song delivered as the second act opener, “Jailhouse Rock” and the finale, “Burning Love”) and better suited to the emotions of their characters. Most of the act takes place within Rockwell’s ingenious set for an abandoned amusement park, with rotating pieces that suggest a deteriorated roller, parachute drop and fun-house. There’s also a “Jailhouse Rock” dance number in a rollaway jail that provides some fun.

The cast includes some of Broadway’s newest young talent in addition to capable vets like Hadary, Alix Korey (Mayor Matilda Hyde) and John Jellison (Sheriff Earl). Cheyenne Jackson makes a terrific leading man, managing to evoke the spirit of Elvis without imitation or pastiche. He’s sexy and mysterious, but a little goofy as well. He sings and moves like a star, and though he may have a little more maturing to do in the acting department, my guess is he’ll get where he needs to be soon. He does have a brief and artistically justified shirtless scene for those who may be wondering.

Jenn Gambatese successfully captures the boyishness and energy of her character and should enjoy a successful debut in her first lead on Broadway. There’s an attractive and appealing second-lead romantic couple in Curtis Holbrook as the Mayor’s military school cadet son Dean, and Nikki M. James as Sylvia’s college-bound daughter Lorraine. They’re the only characters not confused about their attraction to each other, but they have to contend with the opposition of their parents and the attitudes of 1950s America toward interracial love. They get some great song and dance duets (“It’s Now or Never,” which includes a clever scenic special effect involving a retro Greyhound bus and a bicycle, and “If I Can Dream”).

Natalie’s nerdy suitor Dennis is nearly nailed by Mark Price. He’s mostly successful in avoiding the clichés that could have been easy choices in playing a fairly stereotypical character. Likewise, Leah Hocking does what she can with a rather stock character. They’re both solid performers, though, and have a little time before opening on Broadway to find a couple of unexpected bits that will make all the difference. Sharon Wilkins gets a huge moment in act two as she professes her affection for Jim with her solo, “There’s Always Me.” They’re supported by a top-shelf ensemble that includes the likes of Justin Bohon (Will Parker in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma!), Brad Anderson (understudy for Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz) and Paul Castree (standby lead vocalist for Movin’ Out).

The costume designs by David Woolard (Rocky Horror Show, The Who’s Tommy) give a glow to relatively realistic mid-America ‘50s garb. Woolard has the chance to have some extra fun with his jailhouse attire and one other spectacular trick that I won’t reveal here, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Christopher Ashley has put together a really fun evening that at press preview timed out to around two hours including intermission, a length that felt exactly right. He seems to know precisely what he’s doing in giving the audience the jukebox musical they’ve been promised, but using all the skills of a top-notch creative staff and cast. He’s true to the source material and the period, but gives the piece relevance for our times with its gentle message of acceptance. Though he and the cast appear to recognize their jobs are about delivering an energetic song and dance show, they believe in their characters enough to make it a little more than that. In so doing, they’ve set the bar quite a bit higher for this type of a show. I’m betting that All Shook Up will be a sleeper hit of this Broadway season and may be around a lot longer than most of the others that have generated more buzz.

All Shook Up continues through January 23, 2005 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. Tickets available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (including the Shubert and Oriental as well as the Cadillac Palace), through the Broadway in Chicago ticket line (312-902-1400) and through Ticketmaster. Previews begin at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York, on February 20, 2005 with the opening scheduled for March 24, 2005. Tickets for the Broadway run are available through Ticketmaster.


Photo: Joan Marcus

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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