All Shook Up
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 31, 2005
All Shook Up is a winner: what a delightful surprise that is! It's the most fun I've had at a new musical since Hairspray.
The main reason, I think, is that All Shook Up's creators—director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Ken Roberson, and book writer Joe DiPietro are the main ones—understand that a musical comedy gets its energy from people, not gags; and its joy from songs, not spectacle. They've put thirty talented souls on stage at the Palace Theatre, and given them two dozen musical numbers to put over in high theatrical style, all in service of a boisterous, life- and love-affirming plot. Their happiness is infectious. I smiled over and over again as the show played on, and left with a warm feeling of goodwill that lingered until bedtime.
The story takes place on an eventful day in 1955 in a small town that never was in a mythical version of Eisenhower Era America. When we first meet the inhabitants, they're forlorn and lonesome: pretty gas jockey Natalie sings "Love Me Tender" to the air, longing for a man to sweep her off her feet, onto his motorcycle, and out of this burg; her sweet but geeky friend Dennis, who is unrequitedly in love with her, sings along. In the next scene, at a local watering hole called Sylvia's, the whole town dejectedly announces that their town feels like "Heartbreak Hotel."
The score, as you may have noticed, is made up of songs made famous by Elvis Presley.
Just as things are feeling bleakest for these folks, an enigmatic stranger in a leather jacket comes roaring into view on his motorcycle ("I'm just a roustabout / Shifted from town to town"). His name is Chad; he looks a little like that Presley guy and he can swivel his hits just as rowdily and with the same devastating results (women faint); but his personality turns out to be more reminiscent of, say, Fonzie (and he can hit a jukebox and make it start playing like Fonzie, too). For Natalie, he's a personal Rainmaker.
What follows is a cheerful round robin of interlocking love stories: Chad seems to make everybody get all woozily romantic. Natalie disguises herself as a biker boy named Ed in her effort to woo Chad; Chad gets gaga over Miss Sandra, the worldly blonde bombshell working at the town museum; Miss Sandra falls head-over-heels for Ed. Natalie's Dad, Jim, goes cuckoo for Miss Sandra as well, while stalwart Sylvia (she of the saloon; see paragraph 3) realizes that Jim is the man she needs. Sylvia's teenager daughter Lorraine, meanwhile, loses her heart at first sight to Dean, the strapping-but-shy son of the town's aggressively anti-fun Mayoress. And Dennis is still in the picture, too, hoping he can win over Natalie. I won't tell you exactly how each of these little stories works itself out, but there are a whole batch of weddings at the finale. Everybody—audience included—leaves happy.
'Cause it's all set so snappily and playfully to all these classic tunes. Chad, Miss Sandra, Dennis, and Natalie/Ed ignite their love rectangle in locked duets of "Teddy Bear" and "Hound Dog." Lorraine and Dean declare their undying devotion in "It's Now or Never." Chad teaches middle-aged Jim how to be cool with the ladies in a wittily staged "Don't Be Cruel." Sylvia realizes that she's in love with her old pal Jim in "Can't Help Falling in Love" and wails to the rafters when he rejects her in a spectacular "There's Always Me." (Sharon Wilkins, possessed of a big voice that she knows exactly how to use, stops the show cold with this number.) The Mayoress (played with zesty nastiness by Alix Korey) declares her enmity to Chad's decadent lifestyle in "(You're the) Devil in Disguise."
The show sizzles and sparkles whenever Roberson gets his actors dancing—"C'mon Everybody" gets the blood pumping, showcasing the sexy, smooth moves of Cheyenne Jackson (as Chad) and the deftly talented chorus. (The ensemble includes such excellent dancers as Justin Bohon, who made a splash a few years ago as Will Parker in Oklahoma!, Paul Castree, who was a standout in Saturday Night Fever, Justin Brill, Justin Patterson, Randy A. Davis, and Michael James Scott). "Blue Suede Shoes" occasions some fine athletic stepping, while the finale "Burning Love" again gets the entire company swinging. (A dream sequence to "Jailhouse Rock" is Roberson's only real misstep: it simply tries too hard.)
Ashley and DiPietro make sure that All Shook Up never gets too grounded or takes itself too seriously. Church lady hats turn into tambourines at one point; museum statues burst to life and encourage Miss Sandra to "Let Yourself Go." Nothing feels forced or corny, somehow; the silliness is always giddy enough to land sweetly. And though we're constantly aware that we've seen everything here before—in Twelfth Night, in As You Like It, in Hairspray, in Footloose, and in lots of other places—there's a relaxed freshness to this show that's ingratiating and just downright pleasing. Plot developments that subtly twit racists, ageists, and scary judgmental conservatives make their points without overwhelming the genial, light tone.
The cast is superb. Jackson is as appealing a leading man as you could wish for; I responded to his gaudy charms much more than to, say, Hugh Jackman's last season. I've already told you that Wilkins is invaluable as Sylvia; Nikki M. James is equally strong-voiced as her daughter Lorraine, and Jonathan Hadary is her match in every other way as the kind-hearted Jim. Curtis Holbrook and Mark Price prove themselves spectacular dancers as Dean and Dennis, respectively; I wished both had more opportunities to strut their stuff. Leah Hocking has fun as sexpot Sandra, while John Jellison is fine in the small role of Sheriff Earl. Only Jenn Gambatese disappoints—just a bit—as Natalie; it's not that she doesn't account well for herself, but rather that's she more or less outclassed by the talent surrounding her.
Musical comedy is supposed to feel exactly like this: you actually want to clap along with the cast for the final reprise. I had a ball at All Shook Up and I think you will too.