After striking box-office gold last summer with Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Cortland Repertory Theatre returns to the same vein with this summer’s All Shook Up (through July 5). What they have delivered is the music of Elvis Presley and contemporaries but not Elvis himself or even an impersonator. With a clever book by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change), All Shook Up is both a celebration and a spoof of the jukebox musical.
Cramming 26 musical numbers into a little more than two hours means that the tributes begin even before the five-stranded plot begins to unspool. Dark-browed roustabout Chad (Andrew Conners) opens with a stomping “Jailhouse Rock,” framed with the distinctive latticework from the 1957 film. The pre-Army Elvis was still thin, easily adapting to that stiff-legged, pelvis-grinding dance that resounds in our collective memory. Under the hands of choreographer Robin Levine, Connors nails the steps perfectly, ensuring the identity of the character. He sports a high fold of dark hair (not quite a pompadour) and a black leather jacket while seated on his motorcycle, but never has to resort to mimicking a rural Mississippi accent.
When Chad arrives in an unnamed Midwestern town, his motorcycle breaks down, sending him to the only mechanic around: a girl. Natalie Haller (Kailey Prior) is supposed to be such a dowdy grease monkey that no one but the town nerd, Dennis (Patrick Brady), has noticed her femininity. Natalie is immediately smitten with Chad, but when she overhears that he has had “a lot of women” and now travels only with men, she covers her hair with a coonskin cap (it’s supposed to be 1955) and smears her chin with motor oil to approximate a beard and becomes Chad’s sidekick Ed. Lovely actress Prior is a swan when we first see her, never an ugly duckling, and her cross-dressing is a self-evident gag.
All Shook Up’s whirligig plot sounds like an antic mash-up of Shakespearean comedy, as playwright DiPietro admits that the cross-dressing and subsequent mistaken identity are borrowed from Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Once he leaves the garage, Chad quickly falls in love with the brassy blonde head of the local museum, Miss Sandra (Hannah Zilber), who is pursued by Natalie/Ed’s bald father Jim (Thomas Mothershed), a hip oldster finding renewed friskiness. Clearly attracted to him is the sassy, widowed bar owner Sylvia (Debra Thais Evans). Meanwhile Sylvia’s impetuous daughter Lorraine (Jasmine Harris) begins a Romeo-and-Juliet romance with the repressive mayor’s son Dean (Will Vickers), who is quitting military school to be with Lorraine.
Last to arrive of the principals is tyrannical Mayor Matilda Hyde (Rebecca McGraw), enforcer of the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Law. Highly vocal, she never allows her sidekick Sheriff Earl (Bill Lee) to utter a word. Not that he doesn’t have some fun peeking out from under her bonnet, when her “Devil in Disguise” turns out to be a showstopper.
DiPietro’s witty intertwining of plot loops often means that the much-loved Presley hits often come from the mouths of the inappropriate people, starting with the lament “Heartbreak Hotel” delivered by Sylvia, Lorraine, Natalie, Jim, Dennis and the chorus identified as Barflies. The artsy museum owner Miss Sandra gives us the grungy “Hound Dog.”
While we are accustomed to colorblind casting these days, we gradually realize that the black actors in All Shook Up, such as Debra Thais Evans as Sylvia and Jasmine Harris as her daughter Lorraine, are supposed to be black characters. Without counting heads, we also notice that the chorus is composed of an equal number of black and white dancer-singers, so that pairs are usually interracial. This forces Mayor Matilda to admit that what she doesn’t like about rock music is its origin in black culture. Her response is the comic blowout of the show.
Leads Andrew Conners (Chad) and Kailey Prior (Natalie) are in top form. Interns Jasmine Harris (Lorraine) and Patrick Brady (Dennis) impress greatly, but the top moment is company favorite Debra Thais Evans with “There’s Always Me.” Under the practiced hand of Bert Bernardi, one of Cortland Rep’s best directors, All Shook Up delivers plenty of bang-for-the-buck 1950s-era rock garnished with zesty laughter.