All Shook Up, aka “The Elvis Musical,” has come to San Diego-adjacent Vista as Moonlight Stage Productions offers SoCal audiences a terrific outdoor revival of one of the most thoroughly entertaining Broadway shows of the past dozen years.
With its hit-filled score made up of over two dozen Presley classics, its clever, funny book by Joe DiPietro, its delicious cast of characters, and ample opportunities for a director-choreographer to strut his stuff, All Shook Up opens Moonlight’s 35th-anniversary season of “Broadway’s Best Under The Stars” with crowd-pleasing pizzazz.
DiPietro’s book borrows inventively from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night while revolving 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 a 1964 Elvis flick in case you didn’t know.
Michael James Byrne stars as our leather-jacketed hero, who rides his motorcycle into “a small, you-never-heard-of-it town somewhere in the Midwest” in 1955, thereby ensuring that its citizens’ dull, go-nowhere lives will never be the same again.
Tomboy Natalie (Katharine McDonough) falls so head-over-heels for Chad that she decides to disguise herself as “Ed,” the better to get closer to the hunk of her dreams, and in so doing sets off a chain of unrequited loves that Shakespeare would have been proud to call his own.
Chad crushes on the new gal in town, the curvy/brainy museum proprietress Miss Sandra (Christine Hewett), as does Natalie’s father Jim (Todd Nielsen), who himself is loved from afar by saloon owner Sylvia (Vonetta Mixson), while Miss Sandra only has eyes for “Ed.”
Meanwhile, geeky Dennis (Jake Saenz) pines after Natalie, who started the whole thing in motion when she got it into her head to dress in male drag.
Only Dean and Lorraine (Nick Eiter and Yvonne) have the good fortune of falling in love with each other, but Lorraine is Sylvia’s daughter, making theirs an interracial, i.e. “forbidden” love, especially since Dean’s prudish mom, bossy mayor Matilda (Tracy Lore), patrols the town with closed-mouth Sheriff Earl (Bob Himlin) by her side, the better to enforce the “Mamie Eisenhower Public Decency Act” outlawing singing, dancing, touching, and kissing, with black-&-white love topping the list of no-nos.
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.”
Who said the course of love ever ran smooth?
DiPietro’s book is chock-full of 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 deserves additional 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, as when Mayor Matilda 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.”
And speaking of inspired, direction and choreography don’t get any more sensational than Wunderkind Williams’. Not only has “Mr. Broadway 2010” come a long, long way since Musical Theatre West audiences discovered the then 19-year-old in 2007’s The Pajama Game, with Broadway’s Memphis and How To Succeed in addition to MTW’s All Shook Up under his dance belt, Williams is the perfect choice to honor the original ASU creative team’s vision while adding his own imaginative touches throughout. (A re-conceived “Devil In Disguise” is just one of Williams’ first-time-ever inspirations.)
Recent UCI grad Saenz hides his blond boy-next-door handsomeness under a pair of nerdy specs to make for an utterly winning Dennis.
The delightful Yvonne (no last name needed) is versatility personified in her transition from Grease bad girl Rizzo at the Welk to All Shook Up sweetheart Lorraine, and she couldn’t have a more irresistible Dean to fall for than San Diego’s very own Eiter, another star on the rise.
The divine Lore (MTW’s Miss Sandra) does what she does best—steal every scene she’s in—with her sublime reinvention of battleaxe Mayor Matilda, a very funny Himlin standing wordlessly by her side, while Hewitt makes Moonlight’s Miss Sandra as cute as she is curvaceous and power-piped.
While an more age-varied ensemble would better reflect the population of Smalltown USA, All Shook Up’s mostly barely-out-of-high-school triple-threats do absolutely terrific work each and every one, and since this is one show in which no one fades into the woodwork, Nicholas Alexander, Drew Bradford, Crystal Cole, Alexis Dedonato, Melissa Glasgow, Emily Gordon, dance captain/assistant to the choreographer Danny Hansen, Taylor Henderson, Rachael Johnson, Annie Tracy Marsh, Koda Montoya, Dylan James Mulvaney, Emma Nosal, Benjamin Roy, Hannah Schwartz, and Ala Tiatia all get their chance to shine, with vocal snaps to Marsh’s big-voiced Henrietta.
Musical director Lyndon Pugeda gets his cast harmonizing to Stephen Oremus’s beyond-heavenly vocal arrangements while conducting Moonlight’s fabulous 12-piece live orchestra.
Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier and sound design by Jim Zadai are Broadway-caliber professional. Carlotta Malone and Mary Ann Pinnamonti have coordinated the show’s great 1950s costumes designed for Broadway by David C. Woolard. Sets are David Rockwell’s as adapted from his Broadway originals for All Shook Up’s 2006 National Tour.
Chris Luessmann is associate sound designer. Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager.
With the American classic The Music Man and a pair of more recent Broadway gems—Shrek The Musical and Big Fish—on tap from July through September, All Shook Up makes for as crowd-pleasing a Moonlight Stage Productions season opener as any musical theater lover could possibly hope for this summer.
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
June 21, 2105
Photo: Ken Jacques Photography