Growing up, I never got the cheesy, seemingly plotless Elvis musical, having never been exposed to musicals. It wasn’t until a lusty late night tryst with Ewan McGregor dealing with a breaking heart in Moulin Rouge that I finally got what it all meant.
From its opening seconds, All Shook Up explodes with the colorful energy and foot-tapping cheesiness I never identified with the King and all his dancing maidens on the small screen. Chad, All Shook Up’s roustabout protagonist who is lustily played by Rob Thompson, rocks the house with a rousing rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” as he is released back into society, one night stands aside, motorcycle waiting offstage, lips curled into the perpetual Elvis sneer, oozing machismo.
He rides into a clean-cut Midwestern town and into the heart of its pining mechanic, Natalie, portrayed by the effervescent Alyssa Marie. Natalie’s crush comes at the expense of Dennis, her quirky and nerdy best friend (and secret admirer) played to perfect effect by Performance Riverside newcomer Morgan Reynolds. Dennis winds up doing double duty as Chad’s new guitar-toting‘ sidekick, and the trials and tribulations of the threesome strike up familiar resemblances to the Happy Days shtick of the Fonze, Richie and Ralph Malph.
Chad’s arrival propels the town into a Footloose-meets-Grease frolic. Town folk neck in public and break into illicit song and dance romps much to the chagrin of the uptight and so-called keeper of morality, Mayor Matilda Hyde. Unrequited love triangles form when Chad pursues and is rejected by the very prim and proper Sandra. Sandra, in turn, covets and finds rejection in Ed (Natalie in drag). Of course, let’s not forget Natalie’s constant brush-offs by Chad and Natalie’s utter cluelessness about good pal Dennis. The collective longings and yearnings of each are laid bare in renditions of “Love Me Tender,” “It Hurts Me” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” In scenes reminiscent of the closing acts of Grease, the destinies of the hopelessly devoted come to be forged at the abandoned carnival grounds.
In this current production, Thompson could take a lesson or two from the King in the pelvis-shaking department, but under John Vaughan’s direction, he does more than an admirable job as the shallow and steely heartthrob. Meanwhile, Alyssa Marie’s sweet sopranic renditions of Elvis standards really drive home the aw-shucks innocence, small town yearnings of Natalie. However, it’s newcomer that Reynolds steals the show and the soulful Vonetta Mixson who adds the anchoring touch.
The New York Times may have summarily dismissed Joe DiPietro’s jukebox musical, with references from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Cyrano De Bergerac’s Roxanne, as empty and vapid. For the six months it played on Broadway, its sheer pleasure and escapism did manage to snag a Theatre World Award for Cheyenne Jackson’s Chad.
The show is perfectly choreographed, perfectly synthesized and the bubblegum twists and turns cleverly interwoven with Elvis classics. While not the perfect storm for theater critics, All Shook Up nevertheless serves a purpose as the perfect nostalgic salve for desperate times. If only our lives could be so clean and so square.
All Shook Up plays through Sept. 27 at the Landis Performing Arts Center, Riverside City College, 4800 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, (951) 222-8100; www.performanceriverside.org. Tickets start at $25.