CENTERVILLE — An awkward, self-conscious, discomfited boy stands at center stage, baring his soul in painful revelation to the girl he’s adored and worshiped (in the guise of being her best friend) for years. In tremulous uncertainty, after years of hiding his true feelings, he tells her he loves her; over and over again he repeats it. “I love you. I love you. I love you!” The entire cast is onstage, leaning in, breathlessly witnessing this public declaration of love. Audience members are on the edge of their seats, silently rooting for him, this endearing nebbish who has gambled all in one brave nerve- and soul-wracking moment. The girl, the object of his affection, dressed as a boy, her face smeared with dark make-up to represent a beard, looks around, takes a deep breath and gives her answer.
I don’t want to give that answer away, as it’s a major plot point in the show, but the audience laughs, hoping and cringing simultaneously on his behalf, and the moment is gone. As I watched this scene from CenterPoint Legacy Theater’s production of All Shook Up, my heart ached for Dennis, the boy with the heart on his sleeve for everyone to see, except the girl he wants more than anything. This, among several other equally well-played bits, is the reason that Dennis, (played in the M-W-F cast by Austin Singley) was by far my stand-out choice as the best thing in the entire show.
All Shook Up is a jukebox musical that makes use of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (in a very loose manner) to tie together a catalog of Elvis Presley hits. The storyline is convoluted and meanders through far too many characters and twists and turns before grinding to a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion, which feels contrived and implausible. Let’s just say the lengthy and belabored set up was short-changed by the fast and cheap pay off. But hey, we saw a lot of fun dancing and it featured some lovely voices, so that’s all that matters, right?
The plot revolves around Chad, a rock ’n’ roll roustabout (played in the M-W-F cast by Jake Taylor) who is handsome and darling in a kid brother kind of way. Taylor sings well and almost (but not quite) has enough charisma and sex appeal to pull off the iconic Elvis type character comparisons. Chad rolls into a small town on his motorcycle with a guitar strapped to his back (which he never actually plays) and sets the town on its ear. The good citizens have been oppressed and repressed by the puritanical mayor who has outlawed public displays of affection, music and has a special vendetta against singing, hip-swiveling, non-guitar-playing roustabouts. Chad’s arrival sets off a series of events that veer wildly; from couples from opposite sides of the tracks hooking up illicitly, to cross-dressing, to a runaway military school dropout, to grieving a widower throwing off the last vestiges of devotion to his dearly departed spouse. It gets bogged down pretty fast, but if you don’t try too hard to make sense of it all, and just sit back and enjoy the music, you’re in for an enjoyable evening. There’s even a plethora of onstage making out and rear-end grabbing which got a tad uncomfortable for me. (We get it already, teenagers make out on the sly, thanks.)
But the inherent problems with All Shook Up’s book (written by Joe Pietro) don’t really have anything to do with the efforts of the cast members, who valiantly sing their hearts out and dance their proverbial socks off to show how much fun they’re having onstage. The direction by Jansen Davis was lighthearted and fun and the choreography by Susan DeMill was energetic and athletic. Together Davis and DeMill stalwartly attempted to keep the story moving, although one or two too many extended dance breaks took some of the momentum out of the production. An overlong and draggy second act also broke the spell they were trying to cast for the audience. On this opening night performance, there were a number of times when the ensemble seemed to struggle to remember the choreography as well, or to find their light so they weren’t dancing in the dark next to an empty but beautifully lit portion of the stage. Perhaps this is an issue of a lack of adequate rehearsal time. Given a few more run-throughs, this should work itself out. “Come on Everybody” was a high point, although in “Now or Never,” the ensemble was stronger and more interesting to watch, and upstaged Lorraine and Dean in their big duet.
The music direction by JD Dumas was excellent, especially in the ensemble numbers. They created a rich, full multi-layered sound that was far greater than the sum of its parts. Some stand-out voices among the leading cast members were Heather White as Natalie, Melissa Cecala as Miss Sandra, Brooke Mortensen as Lorraine and Jake Taylor as Chad. Austin Singley as Dennis had, far and away, the best character development. He really pulled me in to root for him and his undying love for Natalie. While Cecala was an elegant, patrician Miss Sandra who looked the part beautifully, she ultimately wasn’t entirely convincing as madly in love with grungy, grubby Ed. Yet her comic timing was excellent and she provided some funny moments, and her vocals were excellent.
The unit set design by Scott Van Dyke was fun to look at and very versatile, consisting of many levels, including a staircase and a fireman’s pole, and was decorated with 1950’s inspired logos, cartoon characters, and advertisements which clearly set the time and place for the story. The lighting design by David Larsen was clever in its use of lighting to depict different parts of town. Set and lights worked together beautifully in the first act to show Jim’s Gas Station/car repair, Sylvia’s Honky Tonk Club (which looked a little more like a wholesome soda shop than a seedy bar), the bus depot, and the shoe shop. The unit set was less effective in depicting the town museum, and in the second act when the action moves to the old abandoned fairgrounds outside of town, a set change would have helped set the new location more effectively. One of the best aspects of the set was the use of an oversized old-fashioned RCA television set high upstage center. In between scenes and during the minimal set changes, the television played a series of humorous old 1950’s era commercials advertising products such as Pepsodent, Coca-cola, and my favorite, Life-Buoy soap, which claimed to “turn wives wicked.” I loved it.
The costume design by Michael Nielsen showed an evolution in the town’s teenagers after they came under the influence of “the roustabout.” When he first arrived, everyone was dressed in drab browns, greens and beiges, with full circle skirts and boxy cardigans. By act two, everyone has traded in their drabs for fun, brightly colored pedal pushers and short sleeved tops. The slow progression of everyone to wearing blue suede shoes was also an understated, fun process to watch. By the final scene, everyone onstage is wearing blue shoes, with one notable holdout, but you’ll have to keep an eye out for that one yourself!
There were a few minor sound issues during the performance, with the wrong cue being played once and one or two microphones that shorted out, but for the most part the sound design by Eric Millward was effective. The one complaint I have is that the minus track was played at too high a volume, which made it difficult to hear the singers and understand the lyrics.
If you can put these few distractions aside, and forget that the storyline is contrived and silly, you will enjoy this production of All Shook Up at CentrePoint Theater in Centerville.