Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
There have been many jukebox musicals (shows featuring pre-existing songs, usually from one specific artist or group) in the last decade or so. While All Shook Up wasn't the Broadway hit that Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia! were, it's an entertaining and engaging show to be sure. Based on songs made famous by Elvis, All Shook Up is much better than most musicals in the genre. Here, a motorcycle-riding "roustabout" comes into a small Midwestern town in 1955 and shakes the residents out of their repressed doldrums. With his magic touch for stirring up the love and music within everyone, multiple romantic entanglements ensue.
The book by Joe DiPietro (Memphis, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) wisely never takes itself too seriously and is loosely based on William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. With a knowing wink, the story is purposely cheesy in spots, which makes some of the absurd plot twists and unbelievable girl-in-disguise-as-a-guy device forgivable. Even with the corny and fantasy-heavy book, All Shook Up has likeable characters, honest emotions, and a fun and funny tone. It also has a moral center that addresses such issues as acceptance of interracial couples and differing sexual orientations. In addition, the transitions from book scenes to songs occur more organically than in most jukebox shows. Though act one is significantly stronger than the second half of the show, it's an easy show enjoy.
The songs that Elvis made famous were written by a wide array of composers and lyricists. The score has the necessary theatrical flavor, thanks to some wonderful arrangements by Stephen Oremus and Michael Gibson that make many of the numbers sound fresh and new. Song highlights include "Love Me Tender," "Jailhouse Rock," a fun combination of "Teddy Bear" and "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," "If I Can Dream," and a beautiful choral arrangement of "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You." As with any jukebox musical, some song lyrics don't fit either the plot or the characters ideally since they weren't written in the context of the story, but that doesn't particularly hurt the show.
All Shook Up showcases a lot of performers, and the NKU cast is up to the challenges of the piece. They are especially noteworthy vocally, providing first-rate musicianship with their singing. Xander Wells may not look like what an audience might expect from an Elvis-inspired heartthrob character, but he is vocally strong and has the requisite stage presence and charisma as the roustabout Chad. As Natalie, Melissa Cathcart maintains a great balance of spunk and sweetness, and is a powerful singer. She captures the tomboy awkwardness of the role, and supplies worthwhile physical comedy.
Aaron Marshall gets a lot of laughs and provides a well-rounded portrayal of the likeable nerd Dennis. As Miss Sandra, Ellie Chancellor is aptly sultry and she displays great timing with some of the inventive antics assigned to her character. As Sylvia, Brittany Hayes showcases clear and power singing, an impressive vocal range, and well-suited tenderness in her acting. Gabriela Rivera (Lorraine) and Trey Paris (Dean) appealingly portray the juvenile would-be lovers and are great vocally. Worthwhile performances are also provided by Sam Johnson (Jim), Kat Klens (Mayor Matilda), and Justin Woolums (Sherriff Earl). The hard-working ensemble seems to be in almost constant motion and deserves much praise as well.
Director Brian Robertson takes a lot of risks with this production, with mixed results. Some of the choices, like the comic presentation of "It Hurts Me" and the blocking of several other scenes, are truly inspired. A few others, such as a running gag where Sherriff Earl freezes, along with a messy presentation of "It's Now or Never," are detriments. However, this is overall a solid presentation of the material.
The well-suited choreography by Heather Britt is almost non-stop, and helps keep a high energy level for the show. Jamey Strawn leads a great-sounding onstage band. The multi-tiered unit set by Ronald A. Shaw features stairs and various levels along with some smaller set pieces. However, the overall lack of specific sets does hamper the storytelling somewhat. The lighting and video design by Terry Powell help a bit, but the digital light boards that dominate the back wall too often comment unnecessarily on the songs rather than helping to define the setting. The costumes by Daryl Harris are all in only black and white throughout. The silhouettes of the outfits are very attractive, but more variation in the styles and material of the costumes (especially since there is no color variation) would be an improvement.
All Shook Up is a humorous fantasy with a strong moral center, and it successfully provides a framework to showcase the familiar and melodic songs performed by Elvis. The cast of the NKU production are to be commended for applying their talents skillfully for this show.
The show continues through February 26, 2017, at NKU Corbett Theatre in Highland Heights, KY. For tickets and more information, visit nku.edu or call 859-572-5464.