Somewhere around the middle of Act II of All Shook Up I started thinking of Brooks Atkinson's review of the original Broadway production of Pal Joey. Have you ever read it? If not, click here. It's truly one of the great pieces of Broadway criticism. In his review, Atkinson states that although so much of Pal Joey is artistically outstanding -- the Rodgers and Hart Score, George Abbott's direction, Robert Alton's dances, Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal's leading performances -- he simply could not enjoy this musical which is now considered a great landmark. Why not? Because of John O'Hara's book. Specifically, the despicable title character. The idea of a musical telling the story of an unlikable anti-hero was quite new in 1940 and although he clearly admired the production, the chief critic of the New York Times ended his evaluation with the now famous question, "Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?"
Just to be clear, All Shook Up is not Pal Joey, but it too is drawn from a foul well. The term "jukebox musical" is quickly becoming as common a phrase in the Broadway lexicon as "stunt casting" and "full price obstructed view seating." Simply put, it's the practice of creating a new musical by wrapping a story around a collection of existing songs which were not written to be sung on stage. (Not to be confused with plotless revues, ballets and shows adapted from older musicals using theatre songs) The obvious dramatic problem is that plots become convoluted and songs do little to develop the characters or advance the plot.
But the hard fact of Broadway is that plenty of people don't care about a strong book. Earlier this season, the Beach Boys jukebox musical Good Vibrations opened to some of the worst reviews thrown at a show in years. It's still running. Mamma Mia went home empty-handed at the 2002 Tony Awards. Its competing musicals all closed long, long ago and the ABBA jukebox show is still a hot ticket. Producers are well aware that mounting interesting, well-crafted musicals that take risks may get you some good reviews, but light-hearted familiar fun with plenty of eye candy will get you paying customers.
And you know something... All Shook Up is the best damn jukebox musical I've ever seen. I can't wait to tell you about all the outstanding contributions some extremely talented artists have made to this production. If you love Elvis Presley songs you'll have a heck of a time at this one, just so long as you don't require your entertainments to be well written.
But I do require my entertainments to be well-written. Even if it's mindless fluff, I get more enjoyment from good writing than all the sets and dances and kick-ass performances you can load into two and a half hours. As is usually the case with this kind of show, bookwriter Joe DiPietro has a nearly impossible task trying to include 25 Elvis tunes into a book that makes some degree of sense. His story is set in a small mid-western town in 1955, where a motorcycle-riding Elvis type (Cheyenne Jackson) makes quick pit stop to get his bike fixed and to introduce the citizens to rock and roll. This seems like a good start because the All Shook Up cast has a mixture of black and white actors and one of the reasons white people resisted Elvis' music was that much of it was influenced by gospel and rhythm and blues. But wait... this is a 1955 mid-western rural town where white people and black people freely mingle among each other. In fact, it seems there's only one person in town who's a segregationist; the mayor. The mayor is the only racist in town? So this warrants the question who the hell voted for her????
What DiPietro does nicely is develop a bunch of mismatch romantic complications suggestive of Shakespeare's lighter fare such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night. But although there's a sense of comedy in the air, the actual jokes just aren't funny. When you have a terrific comic talent like Alix Korey playing the mayor and her lines earn nothing but cricket chirps ("It's like Sodom and Gomorrah, but with rhythm.") I lean towards blaming the material. And when a Broadway favorite like Jonathan Hadary is reduced to playing "old guy trying to act young" routines, no matter how much it makes the kiddies laugh, I find it sad.
But the verve and sense of fun that actors like Korey and Hadary bring to their roles makes up for the lack of effective punch lines. Cheyenne Jackson doesn't impersonate Elvis, but comes off more like the kind of real-life character The King may have played. The hip-shaking and deep-voiced mumble are kept to a subdued minimum and the lip quiver is replaced by a sexy, hypnotic stare with just enough of a glint in his eyes to let us in on the joke. Mark Price and Leah Hocking both deliver good laughs; he as the nice-guy nerd and she in the Ann-Margaret role as an intellectual sexpot. Jenn Gambatese is an appealing tomboy head-over-heals for Jackson and enjoyable contributions are also made by John Jellison, Sharon Wilkins and an outstanding singing, dancing and acting ensemble.
David Rockwell's set supplies wild bursts of kinetic energy, mixed with nostalgic touches and colorful fun. The jokes in his creativity are some of the show's highest moments and his work provides a joyous playground for director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Ken Robertson (additional choreography by Sergio Trujillo) to mount many a delectable visual under Donald Holder's energetic lights with David C. Woolard's attractive and often funny costumes.
Broadway used to be a place that created its own taste and then shipped it off to the rest of the country. But more and more Broadway is becoming a place that reflects the taste and style that is already out there, and like Fosca in Passion crawls on its knees to the tourist trade begging, "Please love me! I know I am hideous, but please love me!"
Clearly, All Shook Up is going to make a lot of people happy. Maybe even its investors. I just wish that such an expertly created evening could have been built around more inspired, and original, material.
And by the way... where the hell was "Viva, Las Vegas"????????