All Shook Up, Music and lyrics by Elvis Presley, book by Joe DiPietro. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Heather Farney, Eric Chambliss, Gabe Belyeu, Ashley Kelly; photo provided
"I never knew I could care so much for someone I met just a minute ago."
William Shakespeare’s play "Twelfth Night" has inspired a whole host of musicals including "Your Own Thing" and "Music Is" and "Illyria" and the Duke Ellington jukebox show "Play On." Now on stage at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York is the latest version, another jukebox musical featuring the songs of Elvis Presley, "All Shook Up." With an excellent book, drawn from the Shakespeare canon (including lots of bits and pieces from other plots by that theatrical master) by Joe DiPietro it is perhaps the best of the adaptations and certainly the most fun.
The characters are all located in a small mid-western town in 1956. The lady Mayor has banned fun ( a take-off on the incidents in "Measure for Measure" ) and when a tall, handsome motorcycle-driving roustabout named Chad arrives his presence sets off a storm of love-making, dancing, singing and carousing. Two women fall in love with him and he inspires three other men to pursue the women they are secretly in love with. Likewise his effect on women is as encouraging and they make their moves as well. Ultimately even the Sherriff puts his moves on the Mayor. Just as in "A MidSummer Night’s Dream" the principal couples are separated into uneasy pairs who are in love with the wrong others. Every attempt to express feelings is given over instantly to a Presley song and, miraculously, they all work to the advantage of the plot and the character doing the singing. All of which is absolutely terrific.
For this two weekend run the Mac-Haydn has assembled a perfect company. Heather Farney is perfect as Natalie Haller, a 16 year old auto mechanic who is instantly smitten with the roustabout. Like Rosalind in "As You Like It", or Viola in "Twelfth Night" she disguises herself as a man named Eddie and stays close to Chad with whom she is in love.
Chad is played to the hip-rolling hilt by Eric Chambliss in a completely stellar way. He is so dynamic you literally cannot take your eyes off him when he is performing a Presley song; it’s as though he has channeled the rock-and-roll superstar.
Gabe Belyeu plays Jim Haller, Natalie’s father with a combination of charm and grace that makes him the most sympathetic character in the show.
Ashley Kelly is at the top of her game as Sylvia, long in love with Jim but never quite able to tell him. For Sylvia the 1950's fear of race "relationships" is too hard to handle and Kelly makes that clear and then overcomes it to deliver a first-rate performance all around.
As her daughter Lorraine, newcomer Aliya Lorell delivers a most professional performance making herself a very welcome member of the company from her first entrance.
James Cochran plays her young love, a 16 year-old white guy with a secret even he doesn’t know about. Cochran is a wonderful talent, handsome and musical and dramatic.
Natalie’s best friend Dennis is portrayed by Scott Caron whose work is both quirky and emotionally moving. He has given us this performance earlier in the season, but here it is just the right set of choices doing all of the very right things Dennis needs to remain sympathetic rather than just pathetic.
Laura Helm, who has been a joy all season, plays the museum director Miss Sandra and her natural sexiness along with her ultra-fine musical talents make this version of Shakespeare’s Olivia a truly desirable, unattainable heroine.
Gillian Hassert has her day as Mayor Matilda Hyde, nearly stopping the show with Presley’s song "Devil In Disguise."
Sherriff Earl, played by Ned Raube-Wilson, with his own rendition of "Can’t Help Falling in Love With You" adds much to his perturbed and/or concerned glances to create a marvelous character.
As in all good comedies the ending is a happy one with a steal from "The Taming of the Shrew" where all the good couples are happily united and reunited through the "Burning Love" of Natalie and Chad.
Holding all of this together is the fine work of two men, John Saunders who has directed the show and T. Dewayne Barrett who has delivered a choreographic message pulled straight out of a Presley film: if you can dance, if you can shove a hip to one side emphatically, you can have it all. Barrett delivers musical numbers to the stage with a joyous and inspiring oomph. With thirty-one (31) musical numbers to get through this is a daunting task, but presumably Saunders work has fed the concepts and ideas that Barrett has developed. There is a seamless quality to the show and that falls squarely on Saunders shoulders. Even the most abrupt musical entrances feel right, and there are several of those. And the show has given me a new favorite Presley song, "Fools Fall in Love" the ten o’clock number sung by Natalie (a ten o’clock song is usually the next to closing, emotional, powerhouse tune you can’t forget).
Eric Franzen’s costumes are reminiscent of the period and nicely used on stage in this production. Kevin Gleason’s set and lighting are excellent and the sound design by Rachel Neubauer worked so well that she should be immediately hired for all of next season. Michael Dunn’s wigs were perfectly period and bizarrely natural.
How Saunders could pull this show off in the limited time the theater has to rehearse a large show like this one is a mystery. While the young cast is obviously multi-talented the responsibility of getting everything right falls on Saunders who seems to have his ways of doing it right when he wants to. With this show he clearly wanted to.
All Shook Up is how I felt when I left the theater. I was dancing a bit, and singing a bit and altogether having too nice a time for a September evening. This season-ender is a feel-good hit and worth every dime and every moment you invest in the experience. "It’s Now or Never" if you want "A Little Less Conversation" and care to "Follow That Dream." So "Don’t Be Cruel," "Let Yourself Go." I trust that like me you "Can’t Help Falling in Love With. . ." this wonderful musical evening.
All Shook Up plays through September 15 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line to www.machaydntheatre.org.