With its hit-filled score made up of over two dozen Elvis classics, its clever, funny book by Joe DiPietro, its delicious cast of characters, and ample opportunities for a choreographer to strut his or her stuff, All Shook Up, “The Elvis Musical,” is not only one of the most thoroughly entertaining Broadway shows of the past decade, it makes for an ideal talent showcase for the gifted Cal State Fullerton students who play its ten leading roles and for its sensational triple-threat ensemble as well.

68550_10151348315076879_282177129_n DiPietro’s book borrows inventively from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, 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 (Michael Dashefsky) 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 (Laurel Petti) 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.

48067_10151348315351879_910480869_n Chad falls for the new woman in town, the sexy/brainy museum proprietress Miss Sandra (Devon Hadsell), as does Natalie’s father Jim (Göran Norquist), who is loved from afar by Sylvia (Victoria Rosser). Miss Sandra only has eyes for “Ed.” Meanwhile, geeky Dennis (Charles McCoy) pines after Natalie, who started the whole thing when she got it into her head to dress in male drag. Only Dean and Lorraine (Brian Whitehill and Stephanie Inglese) have the good fortune of falling in love with each other, but Lorraine is Sylvia’s daughter, making theirs is a forbidden love, especially since Matilda (Chelle Denton), Dean’s prude of a mother is the bossy mayor, who along with her closed-mouth sidekick Sheriff Earl (Jack Robert Riordan), 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?

15245_10151348314941879_249174755_n All Shook Up opens with “Jailhouse Rock,” our hero Chad swiveling his hips while backed by acrobatic jail-uniformed fellow inmates and a bevy of black-and-white striped mini-dress-sporting 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 warden informs him upon his release.

163584_10151348315066879_29634394_n 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?

66090_10151348315216879_585820492_n 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.” The double Tony-winning writer (for Memphis) 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. Mayor Matilda’s attempts to alert her fellow citizens to the danger Chad poses to their white bread community by warning them musically that he’s the “Devil In Disguise” is but one of DiPietro’s inspired choices.

And speaking of inspired, direction doesn’t come any more inspired than Patrick Pearson’s, and with All Shook Up, the two-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year, nails his first big-stage regional theater-scale production with imagination, flair, and attention to the most minute detail as witnessed by an ensemble of characters who, though nameless, each has his or her own story to tell.

540750_10151348321276879_949786429_n With his striking rock star good looks, Men’s Fitness cover model physique, and MTV-ready footwork, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the current BFA crop as right to play Chad as the charismatic Dashefsky, and since his Natalie is Petti, the heavenly-voiced, surely Broadway-bound star of last fall’s Ordinary Days, romantic sparks ignite like wildfire, even when Petti is hiding her girl-next-door prettiness under a mechanic’s cap and fake stubble.

McCoy proves every bit as winning in Urkel nerd mode as he was as Petti’s self-confident Manhattanite boyfriend in Ordinary Days, and boy can this young man sing.

Inglese makes for a charming, vivacious Lorraine opposite Whitehill’s handsome, stalwart Dean, a boy any pony-tailed teen would be nuts not to fall for.

Denton has great fun ruling the roost as Mayor Matilda, especially when breaking out of her über-social conservative shell to belt out “Devil In Disguise,” while Riordan, as her sidekick Sheriff Earl, earns laughs without uttering a word and cheers when he does.

20878_10151348315366879_1639374319_n Theater majors Rosser and Norquist not only sing Sylvia and Jim’s songs with rich, powerful pipes, they act their roles with charm, have great chemistry together, and manage to convince us that they are years older than their ages, no small trick in a student production.

Finally, Hadsell makes a remarkable transition from Carousel’s graceful ingénue Louise to sex-in-a-slit-up-to-here-red-skirt Miss Sandra, proving that in addition to power pipes, versatility should be the CSUF junior’s middle name.

420751_10151348321516879_480264274_n All Shook Up proves also to be the best possible showcase for its triple-threat ensemble of nineteen, since this is one show in which no one fades into the woodwork, whether lead performer or member of the chorus.

It’s a particular pleasure seeing graduating seniors Tim Fitzsimons, William Hoshida, associate choreographer/dance captain Amy Trgovac, and Gina Velez every bit as charismatically watchable in dancey ensemble tracks as they have been in leading roles, and as for the rest, they don’t come any more terrifically talented than up-and-comers Antwone Sylvester Barnes, Erica Beck, Ethan Daniel Corbett, Matthew Dunn, Nick Gardner, Justin Goei, Dannielle Green, Melissa Haygood, Bren Thor Johnson, Kirk Schuyler Lawson, Dominic Leslie, Alexis Ritchey, Kellianne Safarik, Andrea Somera, and Ellie Wyman.

Choreographer William F. Lett gives all of the above quite the workout in musical number after musical number, his dance steps capturing all the excitement of an Elvis movie, from the exiting “Jailhouse Rock” opener to “C’mon Everybody” to “Let Yourself Go” to “Devil In Disguise” to “Burning Love,” and everywhere in between, making All Shook Up one of the fanciest-footed college musicals ever. Only the omission of the “C’mon Everybody” reprise seems a curious choice since it robs the audience of the chance to get up on its feet and sing and dance along, something which has allowed previous All Shook Ups to end with a great big post-curtain call bang.

Musical director Diane King Vann not only gets her cast harmonizing to Stephen Oremus’s beyond-heavenly vocal arrangements, she conducts and plays keyboards in the production’s sensational onstage band, whose members also include Jeff Askew, Pete Herz, Ashley Jarmack, Scott Martin, David Page, and Bryce Rankin.

934848_10151348319421879_1557744333_n One of the great pleasures of this All Shook Up is its all-new, entirely student-designed look, the first to eschew the rented Broadway Tour sets and costumes that have given each previous ASU I’ve seen the very same feel. Bradley Lock gets highest marks for his inventive set design, one which proves you can do All Shook Up without a real jukebox, motorcycle, or a 1959 pink Cadillac and still have it look like a million buck. As for Lock’s costumes, they too score high for their colorful period looks, with special snaps for the reversible skirts that allow drab townsfolk to go Technicolor in a jiff. (Only the female statuary’s skirts seem more Granny than Greek.) Laura Young’s excellent hair and makeup design complete All Shook Up’s period look, lighting designer Joey Weldon gives All Shook Up plenty of flash and pizzazz, and Jacob Kaitz deserves kudos for his sound design despite a few very minor mike glitches.

Jonathan Castanien is stage manager, assisted by Andrew Cristin, Francis Gacad, and Cailin Luneburg. A faculty-supervised production staff makes for a list of names too numerous to mention here, but all deserve applause for their work.

Ordinary Days, Carousel, [title of show], and now All Shook Up, 2012-2013 has been a memorable year for musical theater both big-scale and intimate at Cal State Fullerton. Forget the word “student” when you make theater plans next fall and spring and simply head down to Orange County for the very best in musical theater at bargain prices. If this year’s crop of talent and shows is any indication, audiences are in for more of the same professional-caliber entertainment in the twelve months to come.

Little Theatre, California State University, Fullerton Department of Theatre & Dance, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
April 20, 2013
Photos: Edwin Lockwood

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