Seeing All Shook Up at Act Two at Levine last weekend was like an adventure in time travel.
The show, which played for one weekend only, offered a glimpse of a long-ago world—1955, when Elvis Presley and his pelvic thrust took America’s small town teenagers (and their elders) by surprise—as well as the one to come.
Featuring dozens of talented kids from the DC area, this production—courtesy of Act Two@Levine, one of the nation’s leading pre-professional programs for young people in the musical theatre—showcased the talent that may one day take them to Broadway.
All Shook Up was originally produced on Broadway in 2005. Written by Joe Pietro, with nearly 30 songs by Elvis Presley, the show is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which, in turn, is a throw-back to the work of a Roman playwright named Plautus.
Like its predecessors, this one revolves around a case of mistaken identity. There are also bits of cross-dressing, mild hints of homoeroticism, some confusion and plenty of laughter.
The show begins with Natalie, a grungy-looking teenage mechanic who yearns for love. Working at her father’s garage, she is oblivious to the yearnings of her best friend, Dennis, a bookish boy who adores her.
Enter Chad, the ultimate Elvis, who roars into town on a motorcycle. He flexes his muscles and his thighs, belts out songs and teaches the town how to dance and strut.
Under his guidance, the town—kids and grownups alike—gets all shook up. Everyone learns to dance and sing, and nearly everyone manages to fall in love with someone who loves someone else. Trying to stamp out all this immoral behavior is Matilda, the wicked mayor, who has devised a code of behavior that outlaws necking in public.
Matilda is also the mother of Dean, who is in love with Lorraine, who is the daughter of Sylvia, who is going to fall in love with Jim, the father of Natalie, who is smitten with Chad (the Elvis lookalike). But Chad has the hots for Sandra, the hoity-toity museum director, who is distracted by the bearer of a Shakespearean sonnet. Ah, poetry!
Natalie, faced with the pain and joy of unrequited love, puts on a hat and pretends to be Ed. Soon, she is Chad’s beloved sidekick. And that’s when the fireworks start.
At the production I saw, Natalie was played with gusto by a grease-smeared Jyline Carranza, who literally rolled on the floor in a frenzy of love gone mad. Chad was played by Sebastian Amoruso—an Elvis clone if ever there was one—while Dennis, the bespectacled bearer of the poem, was portrayed by Danny Germino-Watnick.
(For a complete list of all the performers in this production, click here.)
Miss Sandra, the museum director who is turned on by art and poetry, is played with high-minded sophistication by Sophie Glassman, while Lily Burka is her glittering opposite, the mean Matilda, whose turquoise eyeshadow matches her clothes.
Krystian Ochman is Matilda’s son, Dean, who is found kissing Lorraine—Jenny Dalrymple, the good girl from the poor part of town—and is nearly shipped off to military school.
Matilda’s sidekick is the sheriff. Played by Jack Kurtz, he sheds his proper disguise to reveal a good guy who refuses to arrest the young lovers and, instead, makes a case for romance.
Rounding out the roster of mixed-up lovers are two other grownups. Lily James does a lovely job playing Sylvia, the long-bitter Honky Tonk owner, and Justin Marks is equally touching as the newly bereaved widower, Jim Haller, who tries to emulate Chad.
Under the Artistic Direction of Kevin Kuchar, the cast belts out one show-stopper after the other, beginning with the blues number, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and continuing with “C’mon Everybody,” as Chad teaches the townsfolk to dance, and “One Night With You,” Natalie’s anguished plea for a little bit of passion in her life.
Some of the most comic musical numbers are those that reprise a previous song, such as “One Night With You,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and, of course, “All Shook Up,” which certainly shakes up the sleepy town and all its sadly repressed citizens. And audiences can’t help laughing when Natalie, citing Romeo and Juliet, sings “Forbidden Love is the Best.”
On the more serious side are three bombastic soloists–Bella Zindash, Caroline Hersman, and Lena Lerner—who, like Chad and his followers, swagger and lurch in time to the music.
There is some fantastic dancing in this musical. While all the strutters are great, my favorites are the foursome behind “Blue Suede Shoes,” featuring Simon Diesenhaus, and the septet, wearing masks, who make the statues in the museum come alive.
Keeping the cast in almost perpetual motion is the accomplishment of music director Marci Shegogue, who is both conductor and keyboard player for the six-player pit orchestra.
All 31 musical numbers take place inside a huge barn-like structure, which serves as the setting for Jim’s garage—with its piles of tires and motor oil off to one side—and Sylvia’s café, with its jukebox off to the other side. Kristen LaCherra is the Production Manager.
The visual projections, which loom high up in the rafters and indicate–through words or images—where each scene takes place, are the work of Scott Selman. (One of the funniest of these is a reproduction of Michaelangelo’s Adam for the museum scenes.)
Costumes, created by Gene’s, play an important role in this revival of All Shook Up. In addition to the ghostly statues at the museum—all clad in white gowns and body-stockings—the chorus in this show is a riot of polka dots, stripes, and plaids, with singers ranked in a rainbow of reds, oranges and yellows on one side, and blues and greens on the other.
Like many of the shows produced by Act Two at Levine, this one attracted a sizable audience, nearly filling the Kogod Cradle space at Arena Stage.
At the performance I attended, many of those cheering wildly at the end were alumni of the school. For them, and for all of us who rejoice in the talent of young people today, it was a welcome excuse to celebrate some of the best singing and dancing this side of Broadway.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
All Shook Up played from May 26-28, 2017, at Act Two at Levine performing at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for the American Theater’s Kogod Cradle – 1101 6th Street SW, in Washington, DC. More information about future shows at Act Two at Levine can be found online.