As the sheriff of the newly invigorated squaresville town in “All Shook Up” says near the final curtain, “Sometimes a little indecent behavior is good for you.” If jukebox musicals, in the muddy wake of “Good Vibrations,” represent indecency to musical theater purists, then this buoyantly energetic confection stitched together from the Elvis Presley songbook makes them safe to embrace. OK, so it ain’t Kander & Ebb, but this frothy show cracks the formula with at least as much wit and panache as “Mamma Mia!,” the benchmark by which all such ventures tend to be measured. Enormously appealing leads and knockout production values don’t hurt, either, making this an unexpected, shameless good time.
Best known as the writer and librettist of long-running Off Broadway hit “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” Joe DiPietro’s disarmingly jokey book tangles and then untangles a series of romances, borrowing as liberally from Shakespeare — there are glimmers of “As You Like It,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night” and “Romeo and Juliet” — as from “Footloose.” The result fittingly echoes the spirit of the Elvis movies of the 1950s and ’60s that “All Shook Up” cheerfully approximates.
Given that many of the King’s chart-toppers were hatched in those gossamer-thin romantic comedies, the songs, with some minor lyric modifications, are a surprisingly snug fit in a Broadway pop-musical context, lending themselves to interpretation not just by the show’s ersatz Elvis but by multiple characters.
Setting is a small Midwestern town in 1955, whose residents either escape or bemoan their broken hearts and busted marriages at Sylvia’s bar — to the tune of “Heartbreak Hotel,” natch. Hurtling into town like a sex god on wheels comes hunky guitar-playing biker Chad (Cheyenne Jackson), who sparks up the bar’s long-dormant jukebox and spreads the urge to dance and romance. “I’m just a roving roustabout with a song in his soul and a love for the ladies,” he says by way of introduction, causing women to faint.
Mayor Matilda Hyde (Alix Korey) has passed a decency proclamation, banning public necking, tight pants and “everything I consider dirty.” That doesn’t stop Chad, whose swivel-hipped gyrations set off a chain-reaction of dizzying romance, starting with gas-pumping grease monkey Natalie (Jenn Gambatese), who falls hard for the rebel stud, oblivious to the affections of dorky poet Dennis (Mark Price).
Chad, however, only has eyes for shapely Miss Sandra (Leah Hocking), who runs the local museum — actually a trailer with a sculpture garden — and yearns for a more cultured man. Forbidden, interracial love blooms between the mayor’s cadet son Dean (Curtis Holbrook) and Lorraine (Nikki M. James), daughter of bar-owner Sylvia (Sharon Wilkins), the de rigueur zaftig black diva, who dispenses jaded wisdom and gets to belt the 11 o’clock number, “There’s Always Me.” And Sylvia is snapped out of her aversion to romance by Natalie’s widowed dad, Jim (Jonathan Hadary), who in turn steers his misguided affections toward Sandra.
The romantic deck gets shuffled by way of some Shakespearian cross-dressing, when Natalie decides the only way to get close to Chad is by becoming one of the guys. She transforms herself — with a credibility digestible only in such an unapologetically synthetic musical — into Ed. This further complicates matters when unfathomable impulses toward his new “buddy” overcome Chad and Miss Sandra takes a shine to Ed, turning her into a man-eating vamp in “Let Yourself Go.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure which way the mismatched romances will be reconfigured in the show’s delightfully hokey multiple-wedding finale. But DiPietro’s book gets there with such affection and generosity that breezing along for the toe-tapping ride proves irresistible. This may be the most pure enjoyment offered by a musical on Broadway since “Hairspray.”
Cheekily tossing in self-referential jokes that provoke both groans and grins — “My gosh, there was just a whole lot of shaking going on,” says the disapproving mayor at the end of a dance break — the show is a lot fresher and funnier than anyone had a right to expect. This is due not only to the vitality and muscle of Christopher Ashley’s snappy direction but also to the resourceful cartoonishness of David Rockwell’s brilliant, candy-colored set designs and David C. Woolard’s inventive costumes, illuminated with dazzling Technicolor vibrancy by ace lighting designer Donald Holder.
After his disappointing sets for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” Rockwell outdoes himself here, operating in an even more stylized design idiom than he did in “Hairspray.” He works again with flattened yet three-dimensional forms to create funky buildings, cars, even a Greyhound bus. His Texaco station festooned with hub caps and fan belts is, well, a gas. Ditto Sylvia’s bar, wallpapered with license plates; the improbably grandiose cathedral; the trailer-museum with Grecian details; the jailhouse; and the rickety roller coaster and the amusement park that becomes the magical scene of romantic revelations.
Rockwell and Ashley (who last teamed on “The Rocky Horror Show”) also play amusingly with perspective in constantly moving backdrops: Chad’s entrance on his motorcycle over literally rolling hills is a jawdropper. Auds tired of wondering why their $100 ticket investment is repaid with meager trappings have plenty to eyeball here.
Music supervisor Stephen Oremus’ orchestrations breathe new life into the original Elvis tunes in arrangements that swing between Broadway brass and cool contempo-retro. “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” becomes a hilarious religious revivalist song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” an emotionally lush act-one closer. The title song serves as a rousing act-two kickoff of inflamed passions, while “Burning Love” provides a driving finale.
Rising choreographer Sergio Trujillo has come in since the Chicago tryout to bolster the work of Ken Roberson, and the show now has ample kick. “Jailhouse Rock” has been wedged rather forcibly into the plot to provide a big dance number, but who’s complaining?
Almost outlandishly tall, with big, impossibly handsome features, Jackson is a magnetic presence and a natural for musicals, a confident comedy performer with a seductive singing style marred only by the production’s nagging tendency to overmike the performers. While Jackson is not the most skilled dancer — the vigorous dance action often takes place around him — he has the scissoring legs, twitching shoulders and motoring pelvis down to a fine art.
The quietly radiant Gambatese, who made a fine Penny in “Hairspray,” graduates to a lead role with charm to burn.
As straitlaced Dean, who shrugs off discipline to follow his heart, Holbrook is the standout of the young supporting cast (and a mean dancer), nicely paired with the engaging James. Price is funny as the nerd striving to be cool, particularly in his rubber-legged dance moves; Hocking, Hadary and Korey all hit the right comic notes, while Wilkins displays potent lung power. And John Jellison emerges with brio from silence in the final act as the sheriff, ensuring nobody in this unabashedly fanciful loveland goes unpartnered.