Jukebox musicals (so called because they mine the discography of a particular artist) typically take one of three forms: there is the straightforward presentation of an artist’s music (think Sophisticated Ladies), perhaps with vignettes for each song; there is a biographic presentation of the artist that uses the songs to tell the artists life (think Jersey Boys); and then there is the show that attempts to take the artist’s songs and form them into a coherent story that makes the songs work in a musical context (think Mamma Mia). All Shook Up, the show we saw last night at Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson (FB) Theatre, falls strongly in the latter category. An innocuous but plausible love story serves as the bones upon which hangs approximately two hours of Elvis Presley (FB) most popular hits. At the end, you may not go away caring about the story at all, but you’ll be hummin’ those tunes. And really, is that such a bad thing: to be entertained for two hours with really good music and performances?
Author Joe DiPietro (FB), who has written such musicals as Memphis, I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change, and Toxic Avenger: The Musical crafted a musical focused on a roustabout who comes into town, exciting the womenfolk and stirring up all sorts of relationships. Watching it, I kept having the notion that the story line was familiar, especially about the leading lady wanting the leading man, and disguising herself as a man to do so. There’s only one author I know who loves to do that in his stories — and when I got home I checked (and I was right): this was a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,, which has been made into other musicals such as Play-On.
The basic storyline — or at least the story setup — does sound a lot like Shakespeare’s comedies of mistaken identities and love, where everything ends in marriage (the definition of a Shakespeare comedy). Roustabout Chad (a 50’s Elvis type) comes to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where everyone is bored out of their lives. This is a town that has banned music and dancing and anything fun. His bike breaks down, and so he brings it to Natalie, the greasemonkey mechanic daughter of Jim Haller (who lost his wife and love three years ago). Natalie instantly falls in love/lust with Chad, not knowing that Dennis, the bespectacled dentist to be is in love with her. Jim is good friends with Sylvia, the owner of the town bar (and Sylvia has more than friendship in mind for Jim, unbeknownst to Jim). Chad, on the other hand, has no interest in Natalie — she’s too tomboyish; his fixation is on the docent of the town’s museum — the sexy Miss Sandra. Also interested in Sandra is Jim (remember, Natalie’s dad). Adding to the panic in all of this is the mayor, Matilda, whose military-school son Dean Hyde has become smitten with Lorraine, Sylvia’s daughter (but this is “forbidden” love as Sylvia is black, and thus so is Lorraine).
To try to get Chad to notice her, Natalie decides that Chad must get to know her as a friend first. She uses grease to fake a beard and mustache (which of course looks real and camouflages her girlish looks and figure), and has Dennis (who by now is Chad’s sidekick) introduce her to Chad as Ed. Chad grows to like Ed as a friend, but is still interested in Sandra. Dennis also suggests that Chad give Sandra a Shakespeare sonnet, which he has Ed do on his behalf. This results in Sandra falling in love with Ed. Meanwhile, Ed kisses Chad, leaving Chad all confused. Oh, yeah, and the Sheriff is in love with the Mayor.
Confused yet. There’s a more detailed summary of the plot on Wikipedia, which also has an enumeration of all the different love relationships in the show.
Deep book, this is not. Fluff based on Shakespeare’s confusion comedies it is. Don’t go in expecting more, other than to be entertained. You want something deep, find a different show.
Let’s turn now to Morgan-Wixson’s execution of the show. For those unfamiliar with M-W (we hadn’t been there since the 1995 production of Baby), it is a 200-or-so seat community theatre that goes back to 1946, when it was the Santa Monica Theatre Guild. They now get a mixture of up-and-coming professionals (non-AEA, but possibly SAG-AFTRA) and community actors. For a show such as this with a large ensemble, that’s reasonable. You can see some great publicity shots of the cast in the BWW Writeup of the show.
In the lead positions, I think the standout in the cast was Zoe D’Andrea/FB as Natalie Haller. She not only had a wonderful small-town girl look and hidden-beauty as Natalie/Ed, she also had a knockout voice. Reading her credits, it shows that she took on the role of another Natalie — the daughter in Next to Normal. I could easily see her in the role — she had the requisite power and projection in her voice. She is someone who I would hope to see again on larger stages in the future. Playing against her as Chad, the Roustabout, was Christopher Paul Tiernan II/FB. Tiernan had a good presence and a winning performance, but needed a slightly stronger and slightly deeper voice to pull off the Elvis-imitation. Still, the two together were fun to watch.
The second couple of interest were Lorraine and Dean Hyde, portrayed by Flynn Hayward/FB and Joseph Monsour (FB), respectively. Hayward was particularly strong as Lorraine, radiating quite a lot of fun and joy with the role, which came across in her performance and her singing. Monsour worked with her well.
The key older adults in the cast were Larry Gesling/FB‘s Jim Haller, and Brittney S. Wheeler (FB)’s Sylvia. Here, the standout performance-wise was Wheeler, with a great gospel-style voice and oodles of character. Wheeler, however, needs a bit more power behind that great voice. She needs to outshine the musical. She was great, but could be much greater. Gesling is evidently a long-time player at the M-W, and gave a very strong folksy performance that worked well for his character. He handled his leather jacket well (said one CBG to another).
The object of both Chad and Jim’s affection was Miss Sylvia, portrayed to sexy perfection by Alice Reynolds/FB. Reynolds sang strong, exuded a wonderful sense of sex, and captured the role quite well.
Rounding out the significant named roles were Jewel Greenberg (FB) as Mayor Matilda Hyde and Matthew Artson (FB) as Sheriff Earl. Greenberg captured the mean momma well, especially in her one main song “Devil in Disguise”. Artson was mostly silent and strong, but his final scene was great.
Rounding out the cast were Eileen Cherry O’Donnell (FB) (Henrietta), Gillian Bozajian (FB) (Ensemble), Chandler David (FB) (Ensemble), Anne Claire Hudson (FB) (Ensemble), Dana Mazarin (FB) (Ensemble), Caeli Molina (FB) (Ensemble), Marc Ostroff (FB) (Ensemble), Alexander Reaves (FB) (Ensemble), Robin Twitty (FB) (Ensemble), Holly Weber/FB (Ensemble), and Steven Weber/FB (Ensemble). As is common, it is hard to single out people within the ensemble, but I will observed that they all seemed to be having a lot of fun with this production, and that joy is broadcast out into the audience, which is a good thing.
The production was directed by Nell Teare (FB), who also served as choreographer. I always find it hard to separate the director from the actor’s performance, which I presume is the mark of good direction. I will say that there were no obvious directorial problems, and the actors seemed to convey the story well with good feeling. The dancing was interesting. It was a mix of period dance with some clear ballet steps thrown in — which seemed out of context for the characters in the story. They were fun to watch and well executed; I just found myself going — oh, that’s ballet. Kristi Slager (FB) was also credited with choreography.
Music direction was by Anne Gesling (FB)… and there were no other music credits. This implies that the music was pre-recorded; I have no idea whether it was done just for this show, or provided by the licensing agents. In either case, I want to encourage the theatre to use live music — it makes a significant difference in the energy in the show. The music ties very closely to the sound design by… by…. hmmm, there was no credit for sound design. This is a small enough theatre that the actors were not amplified — which can be good if they can properly project — but that is hampered by the recorded music which then has to adjust its volume so that the actors can hear it, the audience can hear it, and it doesn’t overpower one or the other. Some work may need to be done to adjust that balance.
The set design was by Lidiya Korotko (FB), and was clearly in the community theatre vein: flats that were rolled on and off the stage with various props, and a back-projection to establish place. It worked at that level, although the back projection needs to be off the stage so it doesn’t shake as the actors move. As for the flats, they are certainly in the range of acceptable theatre, although an number of items were creatively drawn or constructed (such as the gas pumps). The mix of realistic and created items was a little bit jarring. The sense of place created by the sets was supported by the costume design of Kristie Rutledge. The costumes seemed sufficiently period, but there were little things that created questions. My wife couldn’t recall if crinoline came in all the colors used back in the 1950s; I was unsure whether the belts the ladies were wearing on their dresses were correct. The lighting design was by William Wilday; it did a suitable job of establishing time and mood. Deena Tovar was the stage manager. All Shook Up was produced by Meredith Wright.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birdies) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on March 19 to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, followed by Bach at Leipzig at The Group Rep (FB) on March 20. The last weekend of March brings “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on Saturday, followed by A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB) on Sunday. April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2 (this concert is open to the community; get your tickets here). We have a mid-week concert of the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 7, followed by “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 10. The next weekend our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). The fourth weekend in April is is Pesach, but the Indie Chi Productions dark comedy Dinner at Home Between Deaths at the Odyssey Theatre (FB) sounded so interesting I’ve booked Sunday tickets. The last weekend of April has a hold date for The Boy from Oz at the Celebration Theatre (FB). May starts with a hold date for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB). We then run off to the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation from Berkeley. While there, we may squeeze in a show: the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB) is doing The Boy from Oz (if we miss it at the Celebration), but otherwise the pickings and concerts are bare. May 21 has a hold for Los Angeles: Then and Now, a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has holds for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB). As for June? It’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and loads and loads of shows that aren’t scheduled yet. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.