The Muny’s latest premiere has a good beat and an outstanding ensemble that can shake, rattle and roll with gusto, but for a musical celebrating a rock ‘n’ roll original, “All Shook Up” feels very imitative.
This 2005 jukebox musical weaves 27 Elvis Presley songs into a formulaic romantic comedy loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” It also borrows elements from other nostalgic-fueled high-energy shows, namely “Grease,” “Footloose,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Like cotton candy at a summer carnival, the show is sweet and fluffy but utterly without substance or specialness.
Set in an American small town not unlike Birdie’s Sweet Apple, Ohio, the uninspired book by Joe DiPietro (Tony winner for “Memphis”) mimics the provincial mindset and fashions associated with the mid-1950s.
With a wink and a smile, DiPietro has extracted bits from cheesy Elvis movies and copied teen idol characteristics in the mold of wholesome Troy Donahue and bad-boy James Dean.
Cleverly spoofing Elvis’ heartthrob persona, Tim Rogan is Chad, a leather-clad motorcycle riding “roustabout” who swivels his hips and turns heads, especially the teen tomboy mechanic Natalie (Caroline Bowman).
Elvis, who starred in 31 movies, played Chad Gates in “Blue Hawaii” (1961) and the title character in “Roustabout” (1964).
Chad sets a series of romantic entanglements in motion not unlike the frothy “Beach Party” and “Gidget” movies of the ’50s and ’60s. But oh, here’s the rub. The city operates under the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act — no tight jeans, loud music or public necking. What are hormone-raging teenagers supposed to do?
The dweeby Dennis (Barrett Riggins) is secretly in love with Natalie, who has a mad crush on Chad, enough to masquerade as his bro sidekick Ed; her widowed father Jim (Lara Teeter) takes a shine to the shapely Miss Sandra (Felicia Finley), as does Chad, but the sassy roadhouse owner Sylvia (dynamite Liz Mikel) really likes him; her lovestruck daughter Lorraine (Ciara Alyse Harris) falls for Dean Hyde (Paul Schwensen), the uptight mayor’s son; the bossy prude Mayor Matilda Hyde (Hollis Resnik) is against fun and bebop, but Sheriff Earl (Jerry Vogel) likes her anyway.
Because of these “Love Boat” multiple storylines jumbled together, performers must paint their characters in the broadest strokes. Where they can shine is their vocals, and they do, with Bowman and Riggins standing out in multiple numbers.
With her powerful pipes, Mikel delivers the best performance, singing her heart out in “There’s Always Me.”
Robust renditions of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Burning Love” end each act. But most of the hit songs’ inclusion never feel as organic as the ABBA songs in “Mamma Mia!”
Rather, it’s a gimmick that wears thin real fast — and while the show takes too long to climax, the finale is an abrupt ridiculous group wedding scenario so it can lead to a rousing copycat curtain call.
The energetic cast tries very hard to sell the show, but hampered by this format of a familiar mega-mix in “Glee”-type arrangements, appears more like amusement park entertainment than a Broadway-quality production.
What is notable, however, are the visuals. Scenic designer Luke Cantarella makes his Muny debut with a stunning set. His Funland is a marvel, complete with a working Ferris wheel and rollercoaster frame.
Greg Emetaz’ video design work on the LED screen is not only integral to the story but eye-catching.
A surrey bike doubling as a Greyhound bus and a 1959 Nash convertible are also striking elements.
But several tech components faltered. An unfortunate sound glitch Thursday night left Finley without a functioning microphone for a second act number.
Lighting designer John Lasiter’s use of flashlights at the closed fairgrounds scene didn’t succeed.
Director Dan Knechtges and Choreographer Jessica Hartman, the team behind the peppy “Hairspray,” lively “Mamma Mia!” and extraordinary “Seussical,” certainly move scenes briskly and stage crisp group numbers.
The cast’s charm and sheer exuberance keeps the crowd chuckling, but the whole shebang is more Branson than rebel yell.
Nagging me throughout was the feeling that something was missing. Finally figured it out — Elvis is what’s needed. His iconic presence overshadows this homogenized tribute to the one and only King.
At a glance
- What: “All Shook Up”
- Where: The Muny
- When: 8:15 p.m. through July 19
- Box office: 314-361-1900
- Online: www.muny.org