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'Blue Suede Shoes' steps back into rock history at FST

The latest Florida Studio Theatre cabaret production tells the first chapter of rock 'n' roll.

Joe Casey performs in "Blue Suede Shoes." Photo by Matthew Holler
Joe Casey performs in "Blue Suede Shoes." Photo by Matthew Holler
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“Blue Suede Shoes” is Florida Studio Theatre’s latest cabaret production. But it’s really a small-stage rock concert in disguise. The show explores the legacy of 18 pioneering rock (and proto-rock) musicians. If my math is correct, that adds up to a total of 33 songs by 18 headliners wearing 36 blue suede shoes.

As you might expect, Fats Domino finds his thrill, Mustang Sally narrowly avoids crashing into Ike Turner’s Rocket 88, and there’s a whole lot of shaking going on.

The high-voltage Jannie Jones steals the stage whenever she takes the mic. She’s excellent in a clever arrangement of “Hound Dog,” intercutting “Big Mama” Thornton’s original stylings with Elvis’ radio-friendly take. Jones is also fine on James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Speaking of The King, Joe Casey dares to wear Elvis’ crown — and it never slips off his head. Yes, Casey delivers a flat-out Elvis imitation — but it’s a good one. He’s got a great voice and also plays a mean guitar. Gabriel Aronson’s sizzling keyboard work does justice to Jerry Lee Lewis on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” Aronson plays a mean guitar, too. The smooth-voiced Nygel Robinson is equally deft with his electronic keyboard. A push of a button, and it sounds like a righteous Hammond B-3 on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Thanks to the cramped cabaret stage, they tucked Hannah Benitez away in the corner with a drum set — but she never misses a blistering beat.

Through it all, Jim Prosser’s arrangements are consistently first-rate. That makes a big difference. You kids today might not know this, but many outdoor concerts in the 1970s had terrible arrangements and lousy sound mixing. The tune would sound great on the radio. In the stadium, you’d hear not a wall of sound but a wall of mush. Impossible to pick out the vocals or different instruments. In contrast, Prosser’s audio is tight and crisp. Each voice and instrument stands out. Kudos also to the hard-rocking sound designer Thom Korp and music director Darren Server. There’s never a dull moment. And that can’t be as easy as it looks.

The show has a lot of moving parts. Director Catherine Randazzo keeps it all humming like a well-oiled machine.

Which is not just a music machine …

Between songs, the band delivers scripted banter — albeit, well-written scripted banter. They get into the pudding of rock history. How America’s musicians and songwriters threw gospel, blues, country and R&B in a blender, hit puree and poured a nice tall glass of rock ‘n’ roll. How, in the process, they liberated the musical ghetto of “Race Records.” A bitter victory, as white rock stars took the best African-American tunes and hogged the stage.

Along with writing the script, Richard and Rebecca Hopkins cooked up the concept and selected the tunes, which have a nice emotional flow. Fueled by raging adolescent hormones, the show leaps out of the gate and keeps up the pace to the last few songs. You then get a sampler of Elvis’ later stuff. Evidently, the man got a little maudlin towards the end of the 1960s. And wanted to be taken seriously. He should be. I’m not knocking Elvis’ late ’60s tunes, folks. But they feel like the start of the next musical era.

I’d have cut off the selection at the peak of the British Invasion, say around 1965 or ’66. Maybe throw in some Sam Cooke (“Hold On”), one more Lloyd Price tune (“Stagger Lee”), and a sprinkle of the Righteous Brothers for good measure (“You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”). But that’s just me.

The evening ends with a white-hot reprise of “Blue Suede Shoes.” You can’t help but feel good. It’s a great show, and I’m surprised more people didn’t get up and dance. Present company excluded, of course.

Critics, as we all know, can’t dance.

But I thought about it.


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