The King and The Bard
New Salem is All Shook Up
All Shook Up at Theatre In The Park is a constantly entertaining Elvis Presley “jukebox musical” with surprising depth. From the rousing “Jailhouse Rock” opening to the “Burning Love” finale, it’s a fantastic way to spend a midsummer evening.
All Shook Up is not an Elvis Presley biography but a magical fairy tale combining The King’s biggest hits with plot elements from his numerous Hollywood movies (Roustabout, Blue Hawaii) and Shakespearean romances (As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Elvis and Shakespeare together might seem a gimmick, but it works. Not to worry, the Shakespearean stuff goes down as easily as “Love Me Tender.”
The setting is a never-never-land small-town America in 1955. An attractive drifter is stranded while his motorcycle is repaired by a tomboy mechanic. Through his music the drifter shakes things up, and soon the repressed townsfolk, young and old, are pairing off, battling their pasts and new romantic rivals, and by nightfall are rocking out to “It’s Now or Never” and “Fools Fall in Love.”
We’ve moved past thinking of the 1950s as bland and homogenous, and know that beneath the masks and veneer a social storm was seething, bringing cultural, racial and sexual changes. Elvis Presley stripped away any pretense of denial with his threatening curled lip and gyrating hip (for his first appearances on national television his physicality was deemed so subversive the cameras framed him from the waist up). While his appropriation of what was then known as “race music” is well documented, Elvis brought rock ’n’ roll to the masses.
The songs Presley made famous keep All Shook Up rocking. But there is a depth here, with romantic yearnings, mismatched partners, deception, even cross-dressing. And in the second act, love runs wild in the woods at night (or in the case of this small town, an abandoned fairgrounds).
In Shakespeare things are often not what they seem, and feelings are revealed through layers of disguise and self-deception. In All Shook Up the tomboy mechanic Natalie dresses up as a young man to get closer to Chad, the macho Elvis stand-in, who finds himself uncomfortably drawn to the transformed Natalie, who now calls herself Ed. Where do these feelings come from? Perhaps it’s like magic, or music, Natalie/Ed says,
“How does a song do it? Get inside you and touch you deep down, like it somehow knows you personally… music is some sort of magic… it can take over your body, and change you, and make you realize how beautiful life can be…all the best things in life seem like magic – music, laughin’, fallin’ in love…”
Like new lovers, with the light of surprise and delight coming up in their eyes, the people of this uptight small town awaken to romance and possibility, and the audience is right there with them.
Codirectors Ginny Racette and Karla Wilhelm have a assembled a charming and talented cast and, along with choreographer Megan Walter, keep the show spinning along, especially in the deeper, more satisfying second act. The setting features a waterfall made up of scores of 45 rpm records, with a classic jukebox dominating the stage. Musical and vocal director Racheal Thurman keeps it rocking.
As Chad, Colton Mitchell is independent and forceful. This is not an iconic Elvis, and the part doesn’t call for that. He sings and evokes the spirit of the character with ease. Kynzie Ashbaugh, as the grease monkey Natalie, sings so well and pines so fetchingly that we wonder why Chad could be so blind to her charms.
When she dons men’s clothing as “Ed,” the nature of the show transforms into something deeper and mysterious, and hysterically funny to boot. As her best friend, Dennis, Mathew LaMarca overcomes the stock aspects of the nerdy would-be dentist to become the moral and comedic compass of the show.
The vocal powerhouse Greta Perez is tyrannical Mayor Matilda, who has introduced draconian measures to curb expressions of passion or independent thinking. She too will succumb to the powers of love and be united in the end with the stoic Sheriff Earl, played by Justin Burge.
Miss Sandra, winningly played by Donna Hansen, is the elegant and stylish fish out of water curator of the town’s art museum. Don’t bother trying to figure out what this small town is doing with an art museum, just enjoy Ms. Hansen’s variation on the leading ladies of the Elvis films, played by the likes of Ann Margret and Shelly Fabares.
Sherri Mitchell as the brassy bar-owner Sylvia is both hard as nails and disarmingly vulnerable, and we root for her all the way. Rich Kuschel as her ultimate paramour moves with grace and humor from grief-stricken widower to middle-aged greaser-in-lust to mature lover.
The star-struck lovers (echoes of Romeo and Juliet) are Lorraine, the barkeep’s daughter, and Dean, son of Mayor Matilda, played and sung by the perfectly matched Regina Ivy and Elijah Sadler.
The staff at Theatre in the Park creates a warm, family-like vibe. All Shook Up is a production that will inspire you to return to this invaluable venue and production company again and again.
All Shook Up continues July 18-20 at 8 p.m. Theatre in the Park at Lincoln’s New Salem Theatreinthepark.net/ 217-632-5440.
Dennis Thread is a freelance writer/filmmaker/creative director with experience on Broadway, television, opera, documentaries, and in corporate and institutional communications. He is a recently returned Springfield native.