All Shook Up is all screwed up
Joe Mandragona and company
The Elvis Presley–themed musical All Shook Up (at the Opera House through October 8) has all the makings of an entertaining train wreck: a bunch of Elvis songs strung together with inane dialogue; silly characterization; an implausible plot. That’s a formula that served Elvis himself quite well in the string of guilty-pleasure movies he made through the ’60s. Add in a disco-era sex symbol in the bombshell role and All Shook Up should at least match the exuberant awfulness of those films. Instead it turns out to be the blandest of dinner-theater fare passed off as a proper musical — too timid to offer real characters, much less real rock and roll.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the trend of greatest-hits musicals Mamma Mia maintained a sweet, slightly racy tone consistent with its Abba songs, which were lovingly and accurately done. The current Broadway smash Jersey Boys , based on the messy history of the Four Seasons, sheds light on a great group who seldom get their due. But All Shook Up takes place in a themepark version of the ’50s, with everyone jiving and jitterbugging. Next to this, Happy Days was gritty reality. And the Wonder Bread singing and arrangements make the music sound like Elvis songs being covered on The Lawrence Welk Show .
Joe DiPietro’s book is mainly an excuse to tie the whitewashed songs together. Elvis stand-in Chad (Joe Mandragona, looking more like Ricky Martin and singing more like Donny Osmond) rolls into an unnamed backwater town dishing out homilies about letting yourself go and following your dreams. Chad calls himself a roustabout — which begs the question of whether the writers know what one is. (Hint: they don’t show up in towns without carnivals.) His presence catalyzes the locals to fling themselves into romantic mismatches. Chad is enamored of Sandra (Susan Anton, still attractive but clearly 30 years beyond her role), who works at the art museum (do unnamed backwater towns usually have one?) and proves she’s brainy by walking around reading books. Olivia Newton-John–type Natalie (Jenny Fellner) thinks Chad wants to be with the guys, so she tries to attract him by dressing up as one. Although she’s about as convincing (and alas, about as alluring) as Milton Berle was in drag, both Chad and Sandra fall for her. The charade goes on longer than the plot requires, but her identity is revealed before anything kinky is allowed to happen.
We’re supposed to feel more enlightened than these simple ’50s types, but All Shook Up won’t even let us hear ’50s rock and roll in unvarnished form. An interracial romance figures into the plot, and the show practically falls over patting itself on the back for it. There’s a long and painful bit where a balding, middle-aged guy is made to jump around in a leather jacket and shades. And we’re reminded once again how shameful it was that ’50s authority figures tried to stop rock and roll: the town mayor appears at various times to chastise everyone for dancing to this godless music. An elected official trying to censor popular culture and enforce morality? That would never happen nowadays.
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