Grease is the word: David Sattler and Noel Molinelli in Merry-Go-Round’s All Shook Up.
It also appears that Broadway simply missed the point of All Shook Up. The usual dismissal of the show was that it was just another “jukebox musical.” The grandma of that reviled genre is Mamma Mia!,
based on the disco hits of Swedish group ABBA. Continued box-office
gold for that show has pushed aside critical disdain, and none other
than Meryl Streep will be in the forthcoming movie version. By the time
All Shook Up opened, critical sneers were already set in place by the likes of Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys musical, which has since mercifully faded from view.
What early critics and audiences didn’t
get, however, is fully on display in Auburn. As put together by Joe
DiPietro, the show is both a celebration of Elvis’ greatest hits as
well as a spoof of the cult for him.
To find spaces for 25 musical numbers in
some semblance of narrative requires the weaving together of five plot
lines, some of which intersect. Playwright DiPietro claims to have
borrowed the management of subplots from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It.
Added to that are such reliable Shakespearean devices as cross-dressing
and mistaken identity, as well as laughably implausible reversals of
action that trigger in-your-face happy endings. It’s also true that All Shook Up echoes themes from Bye Bye Birdie and Footloose, but
it’s more fun than either of them. This doesn’t make DiPietro your
friendly high school English teacher gone slumming, but instead, as the
author of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, he’s using ideas that have worked for centuries.
Neither Elvis nor an Elvis impersonator
ever appears. Action centers on a black leather-clad roustabout named
Chad (David Sattler), who could as easily stand for the Marlon Brando
character in The Wild One as the Tupelo truck driver. Wasting
no time, Chad begins with “Jailhouse Rock” with a male chorus on a
multi-level set evoking the movie. It doesn’t fit with any narrative,
but who cares? The time is about 1955 when Chad, wearing blue suede
shoes (a running gag in the show), arrives in a somnolent small
Midwestern town suffering under the plague of the “Mamie Eisenhower
Decency Law,” forbidding public displays of affection or dancing.
Chad arrives by motorcycle (yup, seen on
stage), which immediately breaks down, putting him in need of service.
The best mechanic in town happens to be a beautiful girl, Natalie
Haller (Noel Molinelli), who is soon smitten with Chad. When she
overhears that he’s had “a lot of women” and now travels only with men,
she covers her hair with a hat and puts motor oil on her face to
approximate a beard to become Chad’s sidekick Ed.
Natalie’s best friend Dennis (Collin
Leydon), an uber-geek, has been in love with her forever, fake beard or
not. Chad, however, falls for the elegant blonde head of the local
museum, Miss Sandra (Amy Halldin), who is also pursued by Natalie/Ed’s
father Jim (Greg Bostwick), a hip oldster who wants to travel with the
younger crowd. Jim is not without his own admirer: Attracted to him is
the sassy bar owner Sylvia (Joy Lynn Matthews). Meanwhile, Sylvia’s
daughter Lorraine (Melinda Wakefield Alberty) has a Romeo-and-Juliet
relationship with the repressive mayor’s son Dean (Ernie Pruneda),
who’s quitting military school to be with Lorraine.
Late arriving is Mayor Matilda Hyde
(Mary Jo McConnell), enforcer of the decency laws, who never allows her
sidekick, the Sheriff (Mitch Tiffany), to speak a word. Experienced
playgoers even in Shakespeare’s time know that the sheriff’s shut mouth
must lead to his loud pronouncements before the final curtain.
Much as the sheriff’s reversal is a
comic gift we expect to receive, most other DiPietro plot twists are
unexpected and timely. In a nod to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game,
rough-edged Chad gets to kinda like Natalie/Ed as a boy. More
pertinent, we begin to realize that the well-integrated characters of
Sylvia and her daughter Lorraine are not only played by
African-American singers but are supposed to be
African-American, thus the mayor’s objection to Lorraine’s romance with
her son Dean. The giddily contrived resolution to this Montague-Capulet
conflict cannot be revealed, but even though it was written more than
three years ago, it gives good news to the Obama presidential campaign.
The wittiest aspect of DiPietro’s
intertwining plot loops is the way character and action set up musical
numbers everyone in the audience already knows as coming from the mouth
of The King. The lament “Heartbreak Hotel,” for starters, becomes an
ensemble with Sylvia, daughter Lorraine, Natalie, her father Jim, nerdy
Dennis and chorus members identified as Barflies. “Love Me Tender” is
now a duet with Chad and Natalie without his knowing her identity. And
the haughty Miss Sandra delivers the grungy “Hound Dog.” The audience
sometime greets these new settings with a chortle, as if learning that
“Surrey With the Fringe on Top” now refers to a Hyundai.
At the same time Elvis is never
betrayed. David Sattler deftly embodies that 1950s tough-tender
paradox, just as easily a dark-haired James Dean, without reaching the
campy depths of impersonation. Thus his big numbers—“Roustabout,” “I
Don’t Want To,” and the title song, “All Shook Up”—give fans what they
crave without apology. Noel Molinelli, who could be Ann-Margret in
drag, commands the spotlight as his co-lead.
As is so often the case with MGR shows,
supporting players have all the power and finesse of leads, especially
Joy Lynn Matthews as Sylvia, Melinda Wakefield Alberty as her daughter
and Amy Halldin as Miss Sandra. And director-choreographer David Swan,
who previously helmed this show in Japanese and Korean, ably balances
parody with reverence.
This production runs through Saturday, June 21. See Times Table for information.