Christine Lightcap has long been known as a hard-driving producer, and All Shook Up gives
every sign of having absorbed her maximum psychic and artistic
energies. As will be expected, nearly every player has a costume change
for every scene. The most hilarious of Jeanette Reyner’s outfits can be
seen during “Devil in Disguise,” in which the entire male chorus
appears in drag like one of Dana Carvey’s church ladies. For the
necessary role of Sylvia, an African-American woman whose voice must
have an operatic range, she’s coaxed back into town the much-admired
Jacque Tara Washington. Lightcap has also made peace with one-time
community theater rival Todd Ellis, who plays the hopelessly square
father Jim Haller, struggling to reinvent himself as a hipster.
In a well-considered gamble, she turns the director’s reins over to
exuberant song-and-dance man Shawn Forster, making his debut at the
helm. The multitalented Forster has been a distinctive presence on the
local scene for 20 years, probably best-remembered as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast for
Ellis’ Syracuse Civic Theatre. Forster has always had excellent timing
and it turns out he knows how to show other people how to tell a joke.
There are at least two dozen lines in All Shook Up that look flat in a reviewer’s notebook but reap gales of laughter from the stage.
The book for All Shook Up comes from Joe DiPietro, the man who gave us I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, one
of the most sophisticated reviews of the last 15 years. Patronizingly
dismissed as a “jukebox musical” when it opened on Broadway five years
ago, All Shook Up has gradually been attracting bigger and more enthusiastic audiences in the hinterland than it had in Manhattan.
Yet shows that reset music written at an earlier time do not all
belong in the same box. Consider how audiences love the “new” Gershwin
musical, Crazy for You. The grandma of the jukebox genre is Mamma Mia!, always more popular with audiences than with critics. For wit and inventiveness, All Shook Up has more in common with Crazy for You, if not for the music. All Shook Up is
more a spoof than a celebration. When the setup for a familiar song
comes along, audiences laugh in the two-beat pause before we get to the
first line. Forster’s direction can take much credit for that.
To find places for 27 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. Some
of these were meant to delight the groundlings, such as cross-dressing
and mistaken identities, as well as preposterous reversals of action
that trigger in-your-face happy endings. At the same time, All Shook Up echoes themes from Bye, Bye Birdie and Footloose, but is more fun than either of them.
After a slam-bang opening of “Jailhouse Rock,” superbly
choreographed by Michael Groesbeck but unrelated to any narrative, Chad
(Tom Warner) arrives in a somnolent Midwestern burg (“enough to make
you miss Utica”) suffering under the “Mamie Eisenhower Decency Law,”
forbidding public displays of affection and dancing. Chad wears blue
suede shoes (a repeated gag) while riding a silver motorcycle that
wheels on stage. When the cycle promptly breaks down, Chad must seek
the services of the best mechanic in town, Natalie (Danielle Lovier),
who just happens to be a beautiful girl with a peaches-and-cream
Although Natalie is constantly followed by adoring geek Dennis
(David Cotter), no one—including herself—seems to have noticed she’s a
dazzler. Lovier looks a bit like a younger Mary Astor, but she’s a game
performer who willingly mugs and twists her lip into something
approximating grotesquery. Anyway, Chad pays her no heed but she is
immediately smitten with him. Overhearing that he’s had “a lot of
women” and now travels only with men, Natalie covers her blonde hair
with a hunter’s cap and smears her chin with motor oil approximating a
beard to pass herself off as a chap named Ed.
Chad, meanwhile, falls for the elegant blonde head of the local
museum, Miss Sandra (Danielle Barletta), who is also pursued by
Natalie/Ed’s father Jim (Todd Ellis), the repressed garage owner who
yearns to travel with a more exciting crowd. Jim is not without his own
admirer: sassy bar owner Sylvia (Jacque Tara Washington), who never
convinces us when she says she likes being alone. Sylvia’s boisterous
daughter Lorraine (Bianca Grant) has begun a forbidden relationship
with the repressive mayor’s stiff-necked son Dean (Christopher Wiacek).
Also in the mix: tyrannical Mayor Matilda Hyde (Christine Lightcap),
enforcer of the decency laws, who never allows her right-hand man
Sheriff Earl (Jimmy Wachter) to utter a word. As a device that’s even
older than the Bard, we realize that when he gets to open his mouth it
will be a bombshell.
What can’t be argued about in the jukebox musical is the music,
which has already passed muster with millions of fans for more than a
generation. For all the spoofing in All Shook Up, each of the 27 musical numbers contains some element of tribute. The deft move of having Chad not be
an Elvis impersonator is that Tom Warner never indulges in caricature.
In each of his 12 numbers he becomes another baritone with a similar
style, plumbing the passion in the music. Similarly, Lovier’s Natalie
(if not her Ed) may evoke Ann-Margret, but her eight numbers, starting
with “One Night With You,” are in her own lovely voice.
Seven supporting players have significant musical numbers, of which
Jacque Tara Washington’s “There’s Always Me” wins top honors. All the
others have great moments, including Christopher Wiacek and Bianca
Grant (“It’s Now or Never”), David Cotter (“It Hurts Me”), Danielle
Barletta (“Let Yourself Go”), and even Jimmy Wachter (“Can’t Help
Falling in Love”). Lightcap, who has specialized in comic fussbudgets,
scores with a doozy of the novelty number, “Devil in Disguise,” and
wins with the evening’s biggest laugh about son Dean’s true paternity.
Music director Roy George rocks the house with an ensemble of six.
Set designs by architect Navroz Dabu, recently disabled in an auto
accident, are constructed by Stephen Beebe. The entire production is
dedicated to longtime Talent Company supporter Edith Basile, who left
us last month at age 87.
This production runs through Aug. 15. See Times Table for information.