This review was updated on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
By stuffing the King’s greatest hits into a self-contained new romantic-comedy narrative, “All Shook Up” borrows a “Mamma Mia” modus operandi that has attracted more dollars than there are blondes in Sweden. But that savvy Abba tuner had qualities — wit, self-deprecation, invention, surprise, dramatic tension — sorely lacking in Joe DiPietro’s clunky, irony-free book. There’s a raft of very decent lead performers here, along with some fresh and rich musical treatments. But unless the formulaic middle-of-the-road book is radically retooled, fast, it’s hard to see “All Shook Up” making much of a Broadway gyration.
Sure, this show will have its fans and admirers — with leads like these, it won’t be a total bust — but it’s also dismissably lightweight.
Road prospects might be a bit better. There’s no question that the legit world has been under-Elvised to date and this is, at least, a good-spirited and widely accessible family attraction with familiar music, terrifically sung.
This exceptionally chipper and sweet-voiced cast is capable of far, far more than the material currently demands of them. To a lot of Elvis fans, this show also will seem strangely muted. There’s no postmodern Elvis remix, nothing to really get people shaking their hips, dancing in the aisles or thinking and feeling again about this music. Choreographer Ken Roberson has some lively dance numbers, but he operates on an insufficiently clear canvas. The book can’t shut up, even when people are dancing.
While the musical arrangements here feel fresh and often sound appealing, they don’t go far enough in terms of playing against perceptions. Two things badly need to happen: The show must discover more of its rock (as distinct from Broadway) core and the songs need to be more inventively integrated into the book. That was the great strength of “Mamma Mia.” With “All Shook Up,” it’s all pitifully predictable.
Actually, DiPietro’s 1950s-era book is a cross between “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Footloose.” The show’s setting is a generic Midwestern nowheresville presided over by the usual puritan — in this case an uptight mayoress determined to squelch out dancing, singing and other good times. Why anyone listens is never explained.
In this hellhole, a gas-pumping, thoroughly gorgeous grease-monkey named Natalie (the delightful Jen Gambatese) dreams of escape. That way out is provided by the arrival in town of Chad (the stellar and square-jawed Cheyenne Jackson), a roustabout on a bike. But first, the two of them have to stop fighting.
Whenever it seems to fit, anyone and everyone sings Elvis — sometimes in snatches (“One Night With You” gets belted out every five minutes), sometimes entire songs (“Fools Fall in Love” is the eleven-o’clock number). The songs are divorced from a precise Elvis context — a savvy way to go — but Chad, certainly, has the whiff of the Elvis type. Jackson and Gambatese are impressive and, with the right stuff, they’d be capable of making a big Broadway splash. But there’s a lot of clutter in their way here.
The most appealing of the four romantic couples being wrangled is an inter-racial pair — played by Curtis Holbrook and Nikki M. James — trying to change local perceptions. There’s also a rather bemused-looking Jonathan Hadary doing a generally droll turn as Natalie’s square daddy learning to be cool. Sharon Wilkins plays a bar owner with huge pipes. Leah Hocking is a repressed vamp who runs the mayor’s cultural museum (don’t ask); John Jellison is a sardonic local law enforcement type. All of the above run around like rabbits trying to get together.
Along the way, DiPietro introduces some gender-bending scenes. Natalie temporarily turns into a guy to snag her man — requiring Chad to embrace his inner gay self. Or so he thinks for a moment. That’s about as edgy as anything gets.
You struggle to get excited about any of this stuff — it just feels too old-fashioned, too predictable, too meandering. One perks up a bit in the big musical numbers — the ensemble belts the hell out of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” a sizzling act one close.
The ditties of Elvis are sitting ready to do their thing in this show. So is the cast. But first, it has to decide to be something more than a silly musical comedy piggy-backing on other people’s ideas.