Review: 'All Shook Up'

Even the possibility of Elvis sightings couldn't make it last more than six months on Broadway, but the rock 'n' roll jukebox musical All Shook Up seems destined for a successful U.S. tour. On opening night at Milwaukee's Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the audience was clapping along after only a few bars of the opening number, "Jailhouse Rock." Every pelvis thrust seemed to push the less-than-enthusiastic New York reviews farther and farther into the past.

Scripted by Joe DiPietro -- who penned the book and lyrics for the revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change -- from equal parts Grease, Hairspray, and Twelfth Night, All Shook Up is a pleasant bit of fluff that should play well in the provinces. In it, a good-looking stranger comes to Anytown, U.S.A. to bring rock 'n' roll-inspired freedom to Eisenhower-era folks who are cowed by a mayor obsessed with decency. Soon after motorcycle belonging to the "roustabout" rolls onto Main Street, balding widowers are wearing black leather jackets, whites are kissing blacks, and boys are lusting after boys (or at least women dressed as boys).

The race question figures high in this story, even though blacks and whites seem to share the bar in the town watering hole without incident. Making interracial dating part of the plot is an interesting spin on Elvis' legacy of musical crossover -- i.e., a white person singing black music. But it's also no surprise that the songs are best served when handled by black performers, who give it a necessary jolt of soul. While Stephen Oremus' musical arrangements morph Elvis' hits into various Broadway song forms, very little of the show's music comes close to generating the genuine heat of the original songs themselves. Some tunes work well in Broadway mode (like "Heartbreak Hotel," which becomes a barroom Greek chorus of pent-up lust), but many wind up sounding bland and bloodless.

Yet All Shook Up isn't really interested in reinterpreting the Elvis songbook or demonstrating his musical genius. It's about familiar songs and a familiar (if convoluted) story; both are delivered with a heavy dose of camp by DiPietro and director Christopher Ashley. The overall production has been trimmed down significantly for the national tour, including new choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Unfortunately, David Rockwell's charming sets have also been scaled back, though the dazzling effects of Act II's abandoned amusement park have been preserved via a deftly designed cyclorama.

That said, a trip through the compactor can damage a show that doesn't have much going for it to begin with. Indeed, All Shook Up is more about spirit than execution; most of the cast seems to enjoy the game. They sell the songs hard, and they bring a lot of spirit to Trujillo's run-of-the-mill choreography, even if some ensemble numbers are ragged around the edges.

Most of the fun, then, isn't about precision or innovation; it's about watching members of a large ensemble tear into an over-the-top story and their characters. Well, most of them, anyway. Despite Joe Mandragona's impressive credentials, his Chad doesn't pop like a leading man should -- he's even upstaged by the motorcycle he rides in on. Jenny Fellner is a little more likeable as Natalie, the cross-dressing tomboy who falls for Chad, and who perkily powers through songs like "Love Me Tender" and "Fools Fall in Love." Instead, most of the excitement is found in supporting roles: Dennis Moench as the nebbish who worships Natalie; Brian Seers as Dean, the military school-bound mayor's son who scandalizes with cross-racial puppy love; and Valisia Lekae Little as spunky Lorraine, the object of Dean's affection. Unfortunately, Susan Anton seems to have received star billing by virtue of her height and her shoe-size, and she towers over everyone as Miss Sandra, someone trying to bring "cult-chur" to the town. Anton fails to make her character anything but a clotheshorse.

The hefty gravitas of Natasha Yvette Williams, as Lorraine's mother Sylvia, was the show's true highlight. Williams has got a big, soulful voice, and she's unafraid to add bluesy inflections to power ballads like "There's Always Me" or to a hard-driving song like "That's All Right." She's also got dead-on comic timing, which helped rescue some of DePietro's corniest laugh lines.

Did an uneven cast or fuzzy execution stop the show from making the crowd jump to its feet after that last "Hunka hunka burning love" rang out? Not at all. If the cast keeps up its spirit and sense of fun, All Shook Up may well shake up the road.

All Shook Up ran Sept. 12-17 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee. For additional venues and dates through July 1, 2007, visit www.allshookup.com.