You know that a musical is something special when at the end of Act One and Act Two you have a moment. And, by that I mean that you are totally drawn in and transported to that special place that live theater takes you when everything suddenly comes together. Music Mountain has done that with the Elvis Presley jukebox musical “All Shook Up.” Somehow organic and somehow magical, your eyes widen and mouth drops and you think: “Yes, yes, yes!” And that takes talent. There are different types of jukebox musicals and “All Shook Up” is for me the more satisfying and creative type. It utilizes the music in a whole new way and doesn’t need to be a biography, like “Jersey Boys,” “Cher, “Tina.”
“All Shook Up” is a totally fictional story with an Elvis-like character. It incorporates the songs of Elvis into a story line that has a character, Chad, that “The King” himself would be itching to play. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,” the librettist Joe Di Pietro has set in motion a “No Exit” kind of misery in a small town in 1955 with different people loving the person they can’t have. Or can they? As Shakespeare would opine: “That is the question.”
Chad is a n’er-do-well roustabout , played by Karl Weigand, with young Elvis “Jailhouse Rock”/”King Creole” swagger. After a moment of being in jail, he rolls into town with not much other than a guitar on his motorcycle. His cycle breaks down. He meets Natalie (Jill Gibilisco) , a girl grease-monkey who is handy with a wrench and has never met a cycle she couldn’t fix. It is love at first sight on her part. He hardly notices her. Dennis (Alex Klein) is her friend. He is a nerd who can quote the Bard and harbors a secret love for Natalie but is too shy to say it. The town has a problem. The conservative Mayor Matilda Hyde (Joan Hoffman) has enacted “The Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act.” She is against “loud music, public necking, and tight pants.” And for Chad, life would not be worth living without any of that.
Chad riles the townspeople, singing “C’mon Everybody.” Chad takes on Dennis as a side-kick. They both meet a new person in town, Miss Sandra (Noelle Joy Fiorentino). Miss Sandra is the sexy new owner of the town museum. Chad goes ga-ga for Miss Sandra. Sandra could not care less and is bored by his advances. Something that has never before happened to this hip-thrusting, guitar playing bad boy. They state their positions singing a mashup of “Teddy Bear” and “Hound Dog.” Meanwhile Natalie’s father Jim (Erik Snyder )is at his friend’s restaurant “Sylvia’s Honkey-Tonk Café.” Sylvia (Siiyara Nelson), the black proprietor, is worried about her daughter Lorraine (Brazil Taylor), who has discovered love with Dean (Michael Hall), the white mayor’s son. The mayor and her shadow, Sheriff Earl (Davi Nikolas) are on the prowl trying to squelch free love and rock ‘n roll. And the worry is that they may succeed.
Everyone seems to be in love with someone who doesn’t love them. Only exception is the younger generation, Lorraine and Dean. But their being inter-racial is an issue for the mayor. The rest of the musical is about how love will succeed or not. Gender roles and racial discrimination are themes throughout and make this 2004 musical more timely than ever.
Karl Weigand captures the essence of Elvis while not doing a cheap impersonation. Hip swiveling and a cool sexiness are there, along with precise comic timing. (Kudos to Louis Palena as well for the choreography). Weigand, Gibilisco, Fiorentino, Klein, Snyder, Nelson, Hoffman, Nikolas, Hall and Taylor are all in search of hunk of “Burning Love” and their moves evolve appropriately to reflect the effortless, libidinous prowl that Weigand evokes as Chad. Yup. Chad has made small town America get its “sexy” on. Leather jacket machismo and machisma now being served. Louis Palena and actors get props for that.
The show has 24 Elvis songs in it. When it opened in 2004 to mixed reviews, it was “overproduced” said Ben Brantley of the New York Times. There were too many songs and it overwhelmed the plot. It needed to be smaller and more focused.
Another critic opined, however, that many of the songs were the lesser known Elvis material. And that was intentional as the song had to fit the moment to further plot.
Director Palena has got it right in scale and focus. This show flows effortlessly.
This talented cast has created relatable characters. Gibilisco has two characters to play in the show and is marvelously convincing and adorable. Her Natalie is endearing. Klein as Dennis has never been better. One of MMT’s best actors, his performance was sweetly nuanced, like a cuddable Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” When coupled with two other fine actors, Gibilisco and Weigand, these performers serve up comic gold.
Eric Snyder’s performance is on the money. He has been able to tackle such a variety of roles over the last few seasons and continues to amaze. Siiyara Nelson is a beautiful actress and just plain beautiful…with a voice of an angel. When she sings, your heart smiles. Noelle Fiorentino as Miss Sandra is sexy and sassy. A fine musical comedy actress with great timing.
As the young couple, Hall and Taylor are sweet, lovely and totally believable. They steal your heart with the naivete that young people in love have…and with the huge hope that naivete offers for a better future. (Aside: Hall should get more leads. His acting is warm and honest). Hoffman and Nikolas are fine comic villains as the mayor and her sheriff sidekick. Hilariously funny. “The Devil in Disguise” sung by the Mayor and Church Ladies is a hoot.
This homage to ‘Presley and the 1950’s greaser bad boy’ waxes nostalgic over the Presley/Brando/James Dean motorcycle rock culture of the time. The songs are distributed to different leads in the cast and are not all sung exclusively by the Elvis character. It is a full-fledged musical and not just an Elvis tribute. Towards the end, a reprise of “Can’t Help Following in Love with You” occurs. Appropriate, as by this time the audience has fallen in love with the show and this fine production. The standing ovation is a testimony to that.
Tickets can be purchased at https://www.showclix.com/event/all-shook-up-2023
The show runs to September 10th.
Photos: John Posada