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All Shook Up

Joe DiPietro has mined Shakespeare's plays in scripting this new "jukebox musical" featuring the Elvis Presley songbook. logo
Cheyenne Jackson (center) with (front row, l-r) Sharon Wilkins, Jonathan Hadary,
Leah Hocking, and Mark Price in All Shook Up
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The phrase "all shook up," which Elvis Presley put into the language with his 1957 hit record, isn't an anagram of the name "Shakespeare," but Joe DiPietro apparently thinks it's close enough. Perhaps having noticed the linguistic relationship of "shake" and "shook," librettist DiPietro decided to mine the Bard's plays when he was asked to turn the ever-hot Elvis Presley songbook into the jukebox musical All Shook Up. (He took the term "jukebox musical" so to heart that he has included an actual jukebox in the tuner's shake-a-tail-feather action, and David Rockwell has incorporated a vintage beauty in his endlessly clever set design.)

Faced with the daunting challenge of providing a storyline to accommodate 25 Presley-anointed ditties with some semblance of logic -- logic being a loose term these musical-comedy days -- DiPietro turned to the Shakespeare comedies Twelfth Night and As You Like It, wherein women dress up as men to woo the guys they desire and love letters are sent by way of go-betweens. Obviously on a roll, DiPietro also threw in references to the tragedies Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and to the notion of music being the food of love.

Then, in a continuing fit of lifting from other sources, DiPietro -- who's still raking in the shekels from his long-running, international cash cow I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change -- helped himself to bits and pieces of Footloose, Bye Bye Birdie, Mamma Mia!, and even the Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim musical Anyone Can Whistle, whose villain is a mayoress. But, hey, Shakespeare himself was only too pleased to raid previous works for helpful ideas. We should also keep in mind the old remark about there being only seven plots in all of literature. DiPietro may be doing nothing worse than paying homage to already successful and sorta-successful entities. The question is whether he's merely shaken the ingredients that he's gathered or whether what he's done is shakin'. It's a bit of both.

What resonates in this story of an Elvis-type hottie called Chad (Cheyenne Jackson) who bikes into a sleepy Midwest town and gets the citizenry's juices flowing despite the repressive call of Mayor Mathida Hyde (Alix Korey) for upright (read "uptight") behavior? The plot is a notch or two above serviceable and the show is occasionally amusing as it contrives to bring mechanic Natalie Haller (Jenn Gambatese) together with the object of her affection and to bring her dad, Jim Haller (Jonathan Hadary), together with dive owner Sylvia (Sharon Wilkins). It also brings nebbishy Dennis (Mark Price) together with... Well, let's just say that All Shook Up goes on like this and also involves museum-in-a-trailer proprietor Miss Sandra (Leah Hocking), Sylvia's rocking daughter Lorraine (Nikki M. James), the mayor's military-school drop-out son Dean (Curtis Holbrook), and sheriff Earl (John Jellison).

Nothing that happens to any of them as Chad plays his version of the Pied Piper comes as a surprise, although the Bard-like happy ending that DiPietro serves up is genuinely cute -- as are David C. Woolard's costumes. (Donald Holder has done the lighting and Brian Ronan the sound design.) On the other hand, DiPietro sanitizes the civil rights situation circa 1955 in showing small-town life as more or less happily integrated. Had he dreamed up a narrative that hinted at some of the resentment towards Presley for co-opting African-American styles of music, he might have come up with something more thought-provoking if somewhat riskier in terms of box-office potential.

But what about the music, which is the major point of this cheerfully and patently commercial enterprise? Sometimes it's knock-your-socks-off effective, as when the entire cast is marched to the footlights by director Christopher Ashley and choreographers Ken Roberson and Sergio Trujillo to perform "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Burning Love," and "Heartbreak Hotel." Some of the solos are potent, such as "Roustabout" and "There's Always Me." And "Jailhouse Rock," deliberately staged to be reminiscent of its look in the movie of the same name, is a song-and-dance powerhouse. Almost as often, though, the numbers are shoe-horned into the plot -- "Blue Suede Shoes," for instance -- and/or they're slightly altered or repeatedly interrupted. Presley fans who are partial to "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog," which brightened the summer of '56 for many teens, won't be pleased with the off-hand treatment that those room-rumblers get here.

It must be noted that the songwriters who supplied Presley with material won't be thrilled, either. None of these tunesmiths -- including marvelous Presley shapers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- are mentioned on the title page of the Playbill; instead, credits for the songs are buried at the back of it. Adding insult to injury, there's a prominently placed note about Elvis in which its implied that he wrote his own songs. He didn't, although Colonel Tom Parker insisted that the hip-swinger get a cut of the royalties for such items as Otis Blackwell's "All Shook Up."

It's the cast, with director Ashley propelling them, that truly shakes things up with Presley's sometimes memorable, sometimes forgettable canon. (Most of the movie songs are trifles.) Cheyenne Jackson, who's got the same sort of piercing eyes that Elvis flashed, thrusts himself pelvis first into the Tony sweepstakes with his self-mocking Chad. The boy's got it all: looks, voice, moves. He's matched by Jenn Gambatese, the always-amazing Alix Korey, Sharon Wilkins, Nikki M. James, the blonde and Diana Dors-y Leah Hocking, the rubber-legged Mark Price, and Curtis Holbrook, a whiz of a hoofer who should have even more to do here. A-well-a, bless their souls!

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