Back in 2004, playwright Joe DiPietro had a mad idea: “Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ and Elvis’ catalog of hits.
Two great tastes that go great together! Why not put ‘em together? Heck. Why not make it a musical?”
DiPietro did exactly that. “All Shook Up” was the name of his mad combination. His jumping, jiving, jukebox musical is now on stage at The Players Centre for Performing Arts.
The plot is an exercise in magical unrealism. Where to begin?
OK … There’s a town in the Midwest that’s put a ban on necking and loud music. (I assume the town in the next county has a ban on dancing. What is it with these towns in the Midwest in musical theater?) But this particular town is stuck in its repressed ways.
Then a bad boy named Chad (Charles Logan) roars into town on his motorcycle and shakes things up, baby. His bike’s got one of them mechanical malfunctions. He asks Natalie (Caitlin Ellis), the lady mechanic, to fix her up. She falls for the roving roustabout; he doesn’t. Since Chad hangs around with guys, Natalie does some Shakespearean cross-dressing and pretends to be “Ed.” Chad promptly makes Ed his new sidekick, and proceeds to work his mojo on the town.
He fixes the broken jukebox with hip gyrations, and stirs up pent-up passions everywhere. Unrequited love is busting out all over. The puritanical mayor tries to put a lid on the Id. But the townsfolk are hot to trot, and hormonal hijinks ensue.
In true Shakespearean tradition, their love won’t stay unrequited for long. The true lovers get sorted out, and they all get hitched in one big marriage ceremony. Chad and Natalie are the lone exceptions. They just hit that long lonesome road — with Chad as the bad girl’s sidekick.
Now that we’ve buried the plot, let’s talk music. DiPietro cleverly shoehorns Elvis’ hits in the stripped-down plot he lifted from the Bard. It’s a mix of thin-Elvis’ pulse-pounding classics and chunky-Elvis’ weepy ballads from his sequined days in Las Vegas. It’s a big jukebox, and the musical pushes all the right buttons.
Berry Ayers’ music direction sizzles. (With the exception of a mic pop or two, the sound quality’s great.) The hard-rocking band is out of sight and always in mind. The power chords of Jami Gaccione’s lead guitar and Sean Makepeace’s bass guitar ring true.
Helen Holliday’s direction follows the lead of DiPietro’s lighthearted script. His musical is a self-conscious grab-bag of 1950s film tropes, musical theater clichés and Elvis chart-toppers. Fun is the point; this isn’t Sartre. Holliday keeps it fun.
Brian Finnerty’s choreography is a step above, as always. Fun, athletic, inventive and never repetitive. Bravo. Ethan Vail’s lighting suits the candy-colored nature of this show-biz dream. It’s red! Green! Otherworldly! There’s nothing naturalistic about it. David Walker’s costumes are a different box of candy. A sampler of pastels, leather and workaday outfits. Who’s who? One look will tell you. Clothing equals character.
This big-cast production is a small town in its own right. Logan’s Chad has the regulation macho sneer and blithe self-confidence in his superpower ability to make all women melt. In the tradition of the Fonz, his character is in the Elvis ballpark, not a flat-out Elvis imitation. (Elvish?) Jason Ellis’ Dennis is the nerd in the shadows (and a stunning singer), with a crush on Ellis’ Natalie, who’s live-loving and happy, but has a one-way crush on Chad, who pines for Sandra (Vera Samuels), the town’s solitary intellectual, who falls for “Ed,” while staving off the unwanted advances of Chad and Natalie’s widowed father, Jim (Kelly Leissler), who’s blind to the love of Sylvia (Phyllis Banks), unlike the tragic young lovers, Dean (Josh Devine) and Lorraine (Bailey Scott), who must hide their forbidden love away.
This Gordian knot of loving is briefly held in check by the repressive regime of Mayor Hyde (Debbi White) and the taciturn Sheriff Earl (Jerry Rudd), who, of course, is secretly in love with her. The cast delivers excellent comic performances all around.
DiPietro’s comedy of errors is one of the few Shakespearean adaptations that actually gets laughs. Like Elvis’ hits, there’s social commentary, if you dig for it. But taking it seriously misses the point.
However, it is seriously entertaining — and it’s in the right hands. The talents of the Players Centre push the envelope of what a community theater can do.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.