note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
The first time I saw Tony Award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s two-act musical, “All Shook Up,” was at the Opera House in Boston, in October 2006, starring Susan Anton, Joe Mandragona, and featuring Sergio Trujillo’s hip choreography. I didn’t like it. I thought the mishmash of misguided lovers that’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s comedy, “Twelfth Night,” an Elvis Presley-like character named Chad, and 24 of Presley’s hits, needed lots of work.
Apparently, something happened, because the recent production at North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) that closed Aug. 26 was a smash hit. In fact, some theatergoers called it the best thing they’ve seen in years.
Maybe it’s the revved-up energy and proximity to performers emanating throughout the large theater-in-the-round, or Music Director Anne Shuttlesworth and her upbeat band of musicians. Kiesha Lalama’s lively choreography rivals Trujillo’s, and this production’s special effects are outstanding, (thanks to Leon Rotherberg’s sound and David Neville’s lighting design). And the bouncy cast and ensemble were having so much fun on stage together, it radiated to theatergoers.
In the post-show talkback, Joyce DeWitt, former stage and well-known TV star of “Three’s Company,” said she loved every minute working with NSMT’s musicians, cast and crew. Although she worked harder at NSMT, running up and down the aisles on cue, she especially loved being near the audience, feeling its enthusiasm.
DiPietro’s play is based on farce and silliness, tailored after Shakespeare’s comedies of mistaken identities, gender-bending and confusion. He also throws in some 1950’s outdated mores, along with a motorcycle-riding, rock’n’roll-loving, guitar-strumming, super-sexy “roustabout,” or wanderer named Chad, who disrupts the tight-collared morality of a small-town and its even smaller-thinking mayor, Matilda Hyde, (DeWitt). Chad wants everybody to enjoy life.
Although the two-act musical features the King’s big songs, don’t expect an Elvis lookalike or soundalike. Star Ryan Overberg, in his skin-tight black jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket (he recently starred as teen idol Conrad Birdie in Reagle Theatre’s “Bye Bye Birdie,” and as a hunky human Adonis in SpeakEasy Stage’s “Xanadu,”) had young ladies screaming, sporting his own brand of sexiness. His acting and singing voice are fantastic, and he swaggers and gyrates occasionally, but the Boston Conservatory senior leaves the heavy-lidded stares to the King.
Playwright DiPietro, who wrote “Memphis” and adapted “Damn Yankees” with a Boston theme, said his purpose in “All Shook Up” wasn’t to emulate Elvis but to present his songs in a fun, nostalgic vehicle for all ages to enjoy. Beside Overberg, various cast members perform all songs as solos, duets, and ensemble numbers.
DiPietro’s plot is wacky overall, but has some serious underpinnings, such as interracial dating in the 1950s (definitely a no-no); distrust of cool-looking strangers (gasp!); and the imposition of ridiculous ironclad community rules and regulations, regardless of civil rights and First Amendment infringements.
Uptight female mayor Matilda Hyde (DeWitt) wants to suppress fun, dance, love and sexuality in her town by invoking her contrived Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act, and ban interracial dating and necking in the old fairgrounds – all that bad stuff.
Then, too, there’s love --- forbidden love, suppressed love, unrequited love, unreachable love, undiscovered love, love at first sight, and ..... love. Through Presley’s songs, DiPietro highlights ‘em all, delightfully.
“All Shook Up” opens with a rousing “Jailhouse Rock” ensemble number, and sings and dances through smalltown grease monkey Natalie’s (Dara Hartman) falling in love with Chad (Overberg), who’s smitten with shapely museum curator Miss Sandra, (Coleen Sexton). who left Revere, searching for a sonnet-spouting, Shakespearean scholar.
Miss Sandra won’t give Chad a tumble. Meanwhile, geeky teen-age brainiac Dennis (Paul Sabala) loves Natalie, who ignores him. To catch Chad’s attention, Natalie pretends to be another “cool roustabout” named Ed, whom Miss Sandra falls in love with, mistakenly thinking Ed penned a poetic note Dennis wrote for Chad to help him woo Sandra.
Mayor Hyde is double shaken when her son, Dean, (Eric Hatch). who’s home briefly from military school, falls in love with black, lively, adorable teen-ager Lorraine, (LaQuet Sharnell), and her longtime, silent, obedient sheriff, Earl, (JT Turner) declares his love for her.
Then, too, Lorraine’s crusty, single mother, Sylvia, (the fabulous Jannie Jones) who’s anti-love, is suddenly smitten with Natalie’s widowed dad, Jim, (John Hillner), who’s smitten with Miss Sandra.
Like all Shakespeare comedies and Elvis musicals, the play ends happily, All’s well that ends well, with everyone marrying their true love. Natalie and Chad ride off into the sunset, in a puff of smoke, and the cast leads one, final rip-roaring, hand-clapping, toe-tapping finale.