More and more, musicals are letting well-known songs tell the story. It’s been done in shows like Billy Joel’s MOVIN’ OUT, ROCK OF AGES and most recently Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT. Each famous tune is expertly placed throughout the show to add humor and move the story forward.
ALL SHOOK UP shakes up a bunch of Elvis hits to tell the tale of a “roustabout” named Chad who rides into a sleepy midwest town and “spreads his love” with a shake of his hips and magical touch, making broken down juke boxes and unsatisfied women come to life again.
That’s right, this show has nothing to do with the King himself.
From the minute I walked into Footlighters Theater, a converted church in Berwyn, PA, I knew it would be an enlightening experience. I arrived early enough to hear vocal exercises floating up from downstairs, which was a good thing, because once everyone was onstage it was difficult to hear all the lines over the background music. Microphones would have been useful for the leads.
I also noticed a ramp running from the stage to the middle of the room, making a wide aisle between the two sections of seating. By the middle of Act 1 it became the most popular way to storm off stage, and I really did get all shook up each time a character would run down it and rattle the floor.
Like many country love stories, this one starts behind bars, where tough guy Chad, played by John Jerbasi, is doing the Jailhouse Rock. I’ve never seen so many cartwheeling inmates, almost made it seem like they were happy to be there, but the strong vocals from Jerbasi and high flipping acrobatics started the show off on a high note.
Jail certainly seemed more exciting after visiting Sylvia’s Saloon in the following scene. The stage was full of bored and listless faces. This made more sense when I heard it was supposed to be “the most depressing place on earth,” which kicked off the famous number Heartbreak Hotel. No wonder the entire town came out to see Chad arrive on motorbike in his tight pants and blue suede shoes.
The set design was a little daring with two sets of steps leading up to a second floor balcony where a lot of moving and shaking was going on. A set of sliding doors were fixed below and consisted of interchangeable signs depending on the scene. Another creative group of “set pieces” were found in the museum’s sculpture garden later in the show. Of course, these statues came to life to sing and dance, and even cope with their own wardrobe malfunctions. Even scene changes had their own soundtrack, which made it flow nicely from one to the next.
I can imagine how difficult it is to try to belt out songs and follow choreography at the same time, so I was impressed at the way the leads tried pulling this off. Many of the roles were well cast and showcased some very talented locals:
Car grease loving Natalie, played by Ashley O’Connor, proved she knew more than just how to fix an engine when she showed off her theatrical vibrato and country pop sound which made her seem like Carrie Underwood’s tomboyish younger sister.
Nerdy sidekick Dennis, played by Hugh Abbott, plays acoustic guitar during Love Me Tender. Not only was this a truly tender moment, but it added authenticity to the scene when all the other guitar playing was fake. Abbott was on a roll when he gave a Harry Connick Jr. like performance during his rendition of It Hurts Me.
Sassy saloon owner Sylvia, played by theater veteran Marianna Epright, also raised the bar when she showed her softer side and added class to the second act during There’s Always Me. Maybe it was the magic of her blue suede heels, but her strong and soulful voice was what this show needed to break from the ranks of your average high school musical.
Other show highlights came when choreographer Jamie Beasley threw in some great swing solos during one of the numbers. You also have to hand it to Jim Conte and Don Caldwell, who play Jim and Earl, for giving it their all on stage.
What would a musical with an Elvis soundtrack be without its share of swooning women? ALL SHOOK UP had plenty of burning love oozing from its leads. We’ve all heard the story before… poetry loving “nice guy” crushes on the girl next door, while she’s lusting after the bad boy who’s obsessing over the more sophisticated woman that plays hard to get. And that’s only half of it! I was told this story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but with the mention of a “decency act” and town stranger falling for the pretty professional I also picked up hints of FOOTLOOSE and THE MUSIC MAN all rolled into one.
From the overheard comments during intermission, audience members enjoyed the “great music,” but “didn’t think [the choreography would] be this physical.” Others thought that Chad was “dreamy” and so they could easily “sit through every performance.”
Personally, I hope this trend of combining well-known songs with a unique story line continues. It’s interesting to see how each song is fit into the script. I’m not sure if Elvis would have voted for the use of jazz hands as the curtain fell, but what would a musical be without that?
ALL SHOOK UP
Book by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Tony Filipone
September 10 – October 2, 2010
58 Main Avenue
Berwyn, PA 19312