Most of us would never entertain the idea of writing a rock musical, but the task would be simplified if we started with songs already in the can. The relative simplicity of this approach has led to a range of "jukebox musicals," including the hits Mamma Mia! (ABBA ditties) and Movin' Out (Billy Joel). But the genre also includes an artistically disastrous hash of Bob Dylan's music, The Times They Are A-Changin', which recently lost a cool $10 mil on Broadway.
This time around, the songs of Elvis Presley form the superstructure for the Palace Theatre's All Shook Up! Borrowing not just from The Pelvis but also William Shakespeare, Footloose, and Happy Days, this show is the biggest pile of schlock you'll ever love. It earns the audience's affection the hard way -- through a frequently clever script and some performances that try so hard to be likable that they eventually are.
The story is set in 1955, as Elvis-clone Chad, a "roustabout" riding a mean Harley, with a gee-tar strung over one shoulder and a chip on the other, rides into a small midwestern burg and bestirs the somnolent natives. When he hears the mayor has banned loud music, Chad magically revives a broken jukebox -- much like the Fonz did when ruling the roost at Arnold's -- and launches everyone into a group dance in "C'mon Everybody."
After setting the town's collective libido to simmer, Chad rolls his sputtering hog into the local repair shop -- where female mechanic Natalie falls faster than a dropped lug nut, to the tune of "One Night With You." And from that point on, whenever any character is dumbstruck with love (and it happens with startling frequency), the first couple bars of "One Night" amusingly signal a swoon in progress.
Soon, Natalie decides to cross-dress and pretend to be a fellow roustabout named "Ed" to get closer to Chad, who's fallen for the statuesque blonde Sandra, the fox who runs the local museum. While Chad tries to sort out his uncomfortable yearning for "Ed," there are other pairings in progress: The Mayor's tight-ass son Dean is on his way to military school, but goes ga-ga over Lorraine, the black daughter of snack-shop operator Sylvia. And Sylvia matches that interracial cuddle-up by making eyes at Natalie's father, Jim.
The book by Joe DiPietro tries hard to mimic the Bard's comedies, what with gender crossovers, multiple pairings, and even a Shakespearean sonnet to help Chad woo the culturally literate Sandra. He also puts together some clever lines, having Chad admit to Sandra that "everything you say makes me sweaty" and referring to the local drunks as "alcohol enthusiasts."
But the songs are still a forced fit with the plot, and DiPietro is compelled to use some less-than-iconic Presley music to keep the tale on target, as when Chad sings the eminently forgettable "I Don't Want To" while processing his love jones for Ed. And some of the story twists are tortured, as when the nerd Dennis -- who secretly loves Natalie -- enters wearing a red plaid hunter's cap so he can feel like a real man. Of course, in the real world this dorky lid would only succeed in getting Dennis hung by his Jockeys from the nearest clothes hook.
Plotting quirks aside, the cast's energy makes the evening much more palatable than it should be. As Chad, Joe Mandragona isn't an Elvis look-alike; short and greasy, he comes across more like a poor man's Christopher from The Sopranos. But he's got a respectable set of guns, curls his lip with panache, and handles the Presley songbook with a style that hovers somewhere between Memphis and the Great White Way. Jenny Fellner, meanwhile, is tomboyishly spirited as Natalie/Ed, capable of belting out "Love Me Tender" and "Fools Fall in Love."
Considering she's pushing 60, Susan Anton is a marvel as knockout Sandra, showing off both her nonstop legs and soulful pipes with "Let Yourself Go." Dweeb Dennis is played by Dennis Moench with appropriate nasal goofiness, and Jannie Jones fills the slot of the big-voiced mama as Sylvia, almost stopping the show with her love confession to Jim in "There's Always Me."
Though the 25 tunes are staged more with perky and predictable Broadway energy than surly Elvis vibe, the whole mess wins you over when, at the conclusion, damn near the whole town gets married in a blur of rock and roll romance. In the end, you'll get a fair shake from Shook.