All Shook Up at the new Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is a delightfully entertaining Elvis Presley musical. It does for Elvis what Mamma Mia! did for ABBA. The plot is negligible—it's just a thin excuse to stage 24 Presley songs—but the book by Joe DiPietro turns out to be more substantial than I’d anticipated.
Not being an Elvis aficionado, I hadn’t expected to enjoy myself much. (I went with a group of Elvis fanatics—one who even has an “Elvis Room” in her house.) Aside from missing a few allusions (like a speech about jazz that echoed one in 1957’s Loving You), I had every bit as much fun as they did.
The story of a rocker who motorcycles into “a small you-never-heard-of-it town somewhere in the Midwest” in the summer of 1955, upsetting the tight-ass mayor and her “Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act,” owes much to the movie Footloose. And there are elements of Happy Days and Grease. But it’s a deceptively smart script with a cross-dressing plot straight out of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It ends up being a wonderful parable of progressive politics all packaged in a great deal of silliness.
The show has all the songs you’d expect in an Elvis Presley musical: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Love Me Tender.” But there are also some flip-side tunes, like “It Hurts Me,” and some more obscure movie songs, like “Let Yourself Go” and “A Little More Conversation.” There's something for everyone.
DiPietro, who won the 2010 Tony award for his book of Memphis , makes dramatic use of the music as well. “One Night with You” becomes a comic leitmotif that's funnier each time it's repeated. The scene of an attempted seducer being repulsed done to a medley of “Teddy Bear” and “Hound Dog” was particularly smart. And I found myself getting verklempt as “Can’t Help Falling in Love” became a large ensemble number describing many different romances.
The ability to create scenes that are simultaneously funny and touching is director Michael Brindisi’s specialty, never better on display than here. He never becomes overly awash in sentimentality. But at the same time, he never sacrifices the heart in pursuit of laughs. It’s hard to imagine this material handled better. And it’s hard to imagine it better performed.
Rico Heisler as the rocker, the Elvis stand in, has to carry the show, and does it admirably. He also pairs nicely with love interest, Laura Rudolf. Jay Albright and Aimee Bryant, as a more mature couple, offer a master class in how comic romances should be played. Albright’s familiar shtick has never been funnier. And Bryant’s way with a ballad is heartbreaking.
As usual, Chanhassen has a strong ensemble from top to bottom. Ivory Doublette and Ben Bakken as the youngest couple and Brian Skellenger as the nerd (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Buddy Holly) were particular standouts. Thankfully, none of the performers attempt Elvis impersonations. Instead, they honor the King without trying to imitate him. Nayna Raymey’s witty set places the show inside a jukebox. And the 1950s is perfectly evoked in the costumes by Rich Hamson and the choreography of Tamara Kangas Erickson. The new regime at Chan certainly has a production to be proud of.
All Shook Up continues at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through January 29, 2011.