Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice? Who says you can’t improve on perfection? Well, whoever said either of those things clearly hasn’t seen 3-D Theatricals’ 2nd-Time-Around production of All Shook Up.

When 3-D debuted ASU a year ago in their Freshman season at the Orange County Pavilion, they had no idea that a) they would lose the Pavilion to an OC arts high school midway through the year; b) FCLO Civic Light Opera would announce the cancelation of their 2011 season; and c) 3-D would step in to save the day by producing FCLO’s season themselves. Since All Shook Up was already part of the FCLO season (a programming decision based on the success of 3-D’s 2010 production), 3-D has been given the chance to recreate the magic of “The Elvis Musical” and do it even more stupendously than before.

All Shook Up is easily one of my Top 10 Favorite Musicals of the past decade. With its hit-filled score made up of over two dozen Elvis hits, a clever, funny book by Joe DiPietro, a cast of delicious characters that make this one of the best triple-threat ensemble shows around, and opportunities aplenty for a choreographer to strut his or her stuff, All Shook Up is a non-stop crowd-pleasing delight.

DiPietro’s book borrows inventively from Shakespeare, yet centers itself around a character Elvis himself might have played in one of his 1960s movies. Chad (the Elvis role) is even referred to more than once as a Roustabout, the title of an Elvis flick in case you didn’t know.

Leather-jacketed Chad (Joe Mandragona) arrives on his motorcycle one day in “a small, you- never-heard-of-it town somewhere in the Midwest” in 1955, and the dull, go-nowhere lives of its citizens are never the same again. Tomboy Natalie (Cassandra Murphy) falls head-over-heels for Chad and decides to disguise herself as a guy named “Ed”, the better to get closer to him (Chad not seeming to realize that Natalie is alive). This sets off a chain of unrequited loves that Shakespeare would have been proud to create. Chad falls for the new woman in town, the sexy/brainy museum proprietress Miss Sandra (Kelli Provart), as does Natalie’s father Jim (Jamie Snyder), who is loved from afar by Sylvia (Amber J. Snead). Miss Sandra only has eyes for “Ed.” Meanwhile, geeky Dennis (Daniel Dawson) pines after Natalie, who started the whole thing when she got it into her head to dress in male drag. Only Dean (Bobby Perino) and Lorraine (Angela Wildflower Polk) have the good fortune of falling in love with each other, but Lorraine (Sylvia’s daughter) is “colored” and theirs is a forbidden love, especially since Dean’s prude of a mother Matilda (Viva Weber) is the bossy mayor, who along with her closed-mouth sidekick Sheriff Earl (Drew Boudreau), patrols the town enforcing the “Mamie Eisenhower Public Decency Act” (no singing, no dancing, no touching, no kissing, and certainly no interracial love). Gay love would also be forbidden if anybody in the town knew that such a thing existed, a conundrum for the previously 100% heterosexual Chad when he finds himself attracted to “Ed.” Got that?

All Shook Up opens with “Jailhouse Rock” (moved up from Act 2 for the National Tour in a savvy decision to start the show with a bang), our hero Chad swiveling his hips with backup provided by acrobatic jail-uniformed fellow inmates and a bevy of black-and-white striped mini-dress wearing prisonerettes. Chad has spent the night in jail, you see, for exciting the town’s women. “And we don’t like our women excited,” the guard informs him upon his release.

The scene then switches to Sylvia’s honky-tonk, where its drab denizens living drab lives sing about “Heartbreak Hotel,” located as you may recall somewhere “down on a street called Loneliness.” Chad’s unexpected arrival causes women to faint in his presence and soon the citizens aren’t looking (or feeling) so drab anymore. When Mayor Matilda catches them (gasp!) dancing, she exclaims in horror, “Well, it looks like there’s been a whole lot of shaking going on!” And there has been indeed.

Grease-monkey Natalie, whose philosophy heretofore has been “Why wear a dress when you can use it to clean an engine,” now dons feminine garb to pull Chad’s attention away from Miss Sandra, but to no avail. Chad only has eyes for Miss S., telling her with a seductive growl, “Everything you say makes me sweat.” When Natalie transforms herself into “Ed” in order to become the Roustabout’s sidekick, Miss Sandra finds that there is indeed a reason (named “Ed”) to stick around town. Who said the course of love ever ran smooth?

DiPietro’s book is chock-packed with laughs, some straight out of the Elvis songbook, as when Chad tells Dennis, “What I’m searching for is the highest form of love—Burning Love!” Other lines are just plain laugh-out-loud funny. Miss Sandra tells “Ed”, “Quote Shakespeare and you can peel me like a banana.” When Mayor Matilda tells Chad to leave town, or else, he replies, “A man doesn’t leave when he’s threatened. He hides.” There’s also this bit of wisdom: “Like my daddy used to say, ‘In the right light with the right liquor, anyone could fall for anyone.’” Remember that the next time you feel desperate for love.

DiPietro also deserves credit for having created a clever and cohesive book around a bunch of preexisting songs, and making them fit his plot as well as his plot fits them. Chad tells Natalie, who dreams of getting on her motorbike and seeing the world, to “Follow That Dream.” When Lorraine reveals to Dean that she’s never been kissed, he tells her in a song that “It’s Now Or Never.” When “Ed” gets tired of all talk, no action from Chad, “he” beltss out “A Little Less Conversation.” And when Mayor Matilda tries to alert her fellow citizens to the danger Chad poses to their white bread community, she warns them musically that he’s the “Devil In Disguise.”

Those who saw and loved 3-D’s All Shook Up last year will find T.J. Dawson’s direction even more imaginative this time around. Choreographer Dana Solimando is back (with the addition of Paul Romero as associate choreographer), her work even fresher and more inventive this time around. The high-energy dancing she gets out of her stupendous ensemble is a tribute to her talents and to those of her Broadway-bound performers.

As for the show’s ten leads, they simply could not be better.

3-D Theatricals scored a major coup last year in getting Mandragona to recreate the role of Chad, which he had originated in the show’s First National Tour. Mandragona was easily the best thing in the tour, and returning in 2011 for a third crack at Chad, he continues to dazzle with his sexy good looks, Elvis-inspired hip swivels, cocky energy, and terrific musical theater chops. (Cliff and Kat Senior’s Elvis wig makes this year’s transformation even more spot-on.)

Murphy once again wins hearts as Natalie, whether clad in overalls, a grease-stained dress, or male drag as “Ed,” and what pipes she’s got! Provart continues to be simply sensational as Miss Sandra, displaying even greater comic timing in addition to her powerful belt of a voice and Jayne Mansfield curves. Dawson’s new-for-2011 take on nerd extraordinaire Dennis is a quirky song-and-dancetastic delight. Perino’s Dean gets a new Lorraine this year, and both he and Polk are fantastic, winning hearts with their charming take on young forbidden love.

Snead is again a warm-and-wonderful Sylvia, and her silken vocal chords make “There’s Always Me” even more of a showstopper. Snyder is finer and funnier than ever as Sylvia’s love interest, particularly when attempting to remake himself as the middle-aged version of Chad. Comedienne extraordinaire Weber has a ball returning as the decency-defending Mayor Matilda, and when her character finally loosens up, it’s Viva Voom at the Plummer Auditorium just as it was at the OC Pavilion. New-to-the-show (and terrific) Boudreau may only reach as high as Mayor Matilda’s chest as Sheriff Earl (an inspired casting choice), but when he gets his eleventh hour say, laughs and applause are guaranteed.

The young, multitalented ensemble are Broadway-ready each and every one. Returning from last year are dance captain Jenn Aedo, Sean Garner, Robert Laos, Chloe Leatherwood, Patrick Loyd, Arthur L. Ross, Kalen Sakima, and Hannah Simmons. New to the show are Amie Bjorklund, Michael Cavinder, Maggie Howell, Chester Lockhart, Isaiah Lucas, Louis Pardo, Afton Quast, Mia Velez, Ali Vesey, Jon M. Wailin, Carly Wielstein, and Shekinah Williams. All deserve major snaps for perfecting Solimando and Romero’s intricate dance steps and Stephen Oremus’s tricky harmonies in a tiny fraction of the rehearsal time Broadway casts get.

Adding to the harmonies are pit singers Jeanette Dawson (who also appears as Agnus), Davitt Felder, and Lindsay Martin.

Resident costume designer Sharell Martin has once again coordinated the show’s great 1950s costumes. Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier and sound design by Julie Ferrin show off the design duo’s accustomed excellence, the latter spotlighting the new and greatly improved sound system 3-D has installed in the Plummer. The sets and costumes (provided by Musical Theatre West) represent the Broadway design talents of David Rockwell and David C. Woolard.

Returning musical director Allen Everman deserves highest marks for conducting the Elvis-ready live orchestra, and getting some absolutely gorgeous singing from the show’s ensemble, who nail the complex vocal arrangements of Broadway whiz kid Oremus. (At the risk of repeating myself, Oremus has created some of the most glorious harmonies you will ever hear on a musical theater stage, making each Elvis hit sound brand new. The final minute of the Act 1 closer, “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” is quite possibly the most sublimely beautiful sixty seconds of song I have ever heard. It’s no wonder the lights go down on Act 1 to cheers usually heard at the final curtain.)

Kudos to the Seniors’ wig design and MTW’s props and wigs (props coordinated by Terry Hanrihan). William Coiner is production stage manager and Andy Tyler assistant stage manager.

If ever there was a local production worthy of being described as “Broadway-caliber,” 3-D Theatricals’ All Shook Up 2011 is that show. With nary a weak link in cast or crew, All Shook Up is Los Angeles musical theater at its professional best.

3-D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
–Steven Stanley
May 13, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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