There may be life in the jukebox musical after all. The much-maligned genre that produced the highs of "Mamma Mia!" and the lows of "Good Vibrations" has strengthened the case for pop-song musical theater with a surprising "All Shook Up."
This genial, thoroughly ingratiating show, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Palace Theatre, features songs made famous by that icon of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley.
And it also celebrates Presley himself, using his persona as the model for the musical's lead character, a guitar-strumming, motorcycle-driving, hip-swiveling roustabout named Chad.
What makes "All Shook Up" work so well is the show's cheerful, tongue-in-cheek sense of self. Book writer Joe DiPietro, one of the creators of the long-running off-Broadway revue "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," has concocted a goofy, often funny and sweet-tempered story that is an affectionate send-up not only of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," but all those cheesy movies Presley made during his mediocre film career. Remember such cinematic clinkers as "Harum Scarum," "Clambake" and "Speedway"? They make "All Shook Up" seem like "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Well, not really. But DiPietro has had the smarts not to take things too seriously, while director Christopher Ashley has assembled a crackerjack cast headed by hunky newcomer Cheyenne Jackson to deliver the goods.
Most of Presley's big hits are here, from "Love Me Tender" to "Jailhouse Rock to "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Can't Help Falling in Love" to bits and pieces of "Teddy Bear" and "Hound Dog," and, of course, the title song.
DiPietro has shoehorned some two dozen Presley numbers into the musical without letting the seams show in his admittedly slender, countrified fairy tale.
We're in a small town in Middle America, circa 1955, a place where all the young folks leave as soon as they get married. It's a dead-end burg until Chad arrives "with a song in his soul and a love for the ladies."
"Time to live a little," he preaches to its unhappy, uptight citizens.
That's not so easy since the town is run by a bossy female mayor (a glorious Alix Korey) who rides around in a pink Cadillac convertible enforcing something called the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act, banning, she says, "everything I consider dirty."
That includes romance, which seems to have affected everyone, all of whom - including Chad -are suffering from bad cases of unrequited love.
Jackson is a musical-theater find, blessed with good looks and, more importantly, the ability to be funny and self-deprecating.
But then, there is equally fine work done by a whole parade of performers.
They include a delightful Jenn Gambatese as Natalie, the tomboy female mechanic who fails for our hero; Leah Hocking as a blond femme fatale who runs the local art museum (OK, that's a bit of a stretch) and a hilarious Mark Price as Chad's nerdy sidekick.
DiPietro's string of mismatched lovers embraces all ages and, in a subplot similar to one in "Hairspray," cuts across racial lines, too, something that wouldn't have happened so readily 50 years ago. It concerns the military school son (Curtis Holbrook) of the white mayor who fails for the black daughter (Nikki M. James) of the local saloonkeeper (the vocally expansive Sharon Wilkins). And the bar owner has designs on Natalie's father, played by the affably rumpled Jonathan Hadary.
"All Shook Up" even flirts with the hero thinking he might be gay after falling for "Ed," who happens to be Natalie disguised as a guy so she can get close to Chad. It's a plot line that gingerly gets resolved with a minimum of fuss.
Ashley moves the show at a rapid pace, aided by some exuberant choreography, the work of two choreographers, Ken Roberson and Sergio Trujilio. The director doesn't allow the show to fall apart even when the plot seems to disappear for yet one more big dance number.
Designer David Rockwell's rustic settings suggest Li'l Abner's Dogpatch filtered through a hip, yet nostalgic sensibility for all things rural, and he has come up with an evocative, almost arty fairground setting in Act 2 where all the lovers come together in confusion.
"All Shook Up" thrives on that confusion, a mixed-up merry-go-round of fun anchored by all those Presley tunes.
Lightweight, to be sure, but it floats very nicely indeed.
Musical-theater lovers generally regard "Oklahoma!" as the start of the Golden Age of Broadway musicals.
Now that we are in the Tin Age, the comparable landmark is "Mamma Mia." Within the new dispensation, "All Shook Up" is certainly a major work.
Based on the songs of Elvis Presley, the show tells of a tiny town ("In the Middle of a Square State in the Middle of a Square Decade") in 1955 whose prudish mayor won't even allow public kissing.
Chad, a sexy young man on a motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket and carrying a guitar, arrives, and suddenly romance blossoms on the town's dusty streets. People who have only eyed one another shyly over the years profess their love.
Natalie, the daughter of a garage mechanic and a nimble grease monkey herself, falls in love with Chad, who is more interested in male bonding.
She disguises herself as Ed and, to Chad's consternation, wins his heart. Older readers may spot a parallel to "Twelfth Night." A young person a few rows behind me shrieked when Ed revealed his actual identity.
Shows like "Oklahoma!" could attain extraordinary quality and still attract tourists. These Tin Age musicals have no higher goal than taking tourists' money, which is why they have scores drawn from familiar music and plots that resemble cartoons.
Still, there's no sense getting on your high horse about such things. Better to mention the show's strengths.
Its major assets are David Rockwell's witty sets, especially an abandoned roller coaster, which is a piece of first-rate junk sculpture. He has also devised a brilliant way to capture the excitement of driving a motorcycle down a highway.
Rockwell's contributions will sustain "All Shook Up" through what will doubtless be many cast changes over the years.
Would that there was half as much wit in Joe DiPietro's hack script.
Second to the visuals is the enormously talented cast, especially the magnetic Cheyenne Jackson, who sings splendidly and jauntily conveys all the silly nuances of Chad. Jenn Gambatese is an adorable Natalie. Sharon Wilkins is a vocal powerhouse as the proprietor of the town's greasy spoon, and the adorable Nikki M. James is equally rousing as her daughter.
Alix Korey is hilarious as the mayor, and Curtis Holbrook dances up a storm as her strait-laced son.
Ken Roberson and Sergio Trujillo's choreography is lively and well-suited to the '50s music.
The cast sings all the familiar tunes with infectious enthusiasm. It's not exactly like hearing the King, but for that you could stay home. Here, for a mere $100 (though the whole second balcony is $19.95), you can have a wonderfully artificial good time.
The music of Elvis - shaken rather than stirred - is the driving force behind the new musical "All Shook Up," which trundled hopefully but dourly into the Palace Theatre Wednesday night.
After ABBA ("Mamma Mia!") and the Beach Boys ("Good Vibrations"), could anyone have imagined that an Elvis Presley songbook musical was far off? The only surprise is that it took so long.
As the show's posters put it: "The story is all new. The hits are all ELVIS."
Guess what? It's the story that causes all the trouble. A concert might have worked better.
Joe ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") DiPietro's distinctly uninteresting book for "All Shook Up" has a few odd Shakespearean overtones, such as quotations from the 18th sonnet and a story that borrows freely from "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It."
It is the mid-'50s. A biker - a "rovin' roustabout" looking like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," but not so wild - comes into a tiny Midwestern town so dreary that even the solitary jukebox doesn't work until he gives it a knowing shove.
The biker, Chad (Cheyenne Jackson), causes a stir among the ladies, particularly Natalie (Jenn Gambatese), a mechanic at the local gas station who fails dizzily in love with this cool stranger.
After all, Chad has this beguiling habit of singing songs once made famous by Elvis. But, of course, so does everyone else, often without much rhyme or reason.
Chad falls in love with Miss Sandra (Leah Hocking), another newcomer who runs what appears to be a portable art gallery. Natalie's widowed father, Jim (Jonathan Hadary), is also in love with Miss Sandra, while Sylvia (Sharon Wilkins), the owner of the local bar, has her eye on Jim.
The town is run by the puritanical Mayor Matilda Hyde (Alix Korey), who is fearful that Chad will turn her dead burg into, as she puts it, "Sodom and Gomorrah but with rhythm."
Matilda's white son Dean (Curtis Holbrook) falls in love with Sylvia's black daughter Lorrayne (Nikki M. James). Filling out this entire Shakespearean plan of unrequited passion are a dental student, Dennis (Mark Price), and the local sheriff (John Jellison).
Isn't it amazing how Shakespeare can make this kind of farrago fascinating? Unfortunately, DiPietro is no Shakespeare.
The guy tries and tries. He adapts Shakespeare's heroines Viola and Rosalind by having Natalie dress up as a boy to get her man. It doesn't work - it just seems silly.
Even sillier is the use of Elvis' music - from "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Jailhouse Rock" and "Blue Suede Shoes," too many hits miss the mark by their abrupt and fragmentary use.
Christopher Ashley's direction is energetic to a point just short of frenetic, while David Rockwell's ingenious, highly animated settings and David C. Woolard's apt costuming are resourceful.
And, as is so often true of bad shows, the performers are almost heartbreakingly good.
As the leads, Gambatese and Jackson have charm and charisma to spare, and he in particular has something of the voice and ail of the pelvis to do his numbers justice. Veterans Hadary and Korey are just fine, and Wilkins sings up a small tornado.
But for all the frenzy, the show seems dead on arrival.
Elvis has left the building. He's even put out the lights.
What you have just heard is the sound of a camel's back breaking. Yet another synthetic jukebox musical opened last night on Broadway, fresh off the assembly line. And theatergoers have responded by mobbing Times Square in spontaneous "Take Back the Stage" demonstrations. Just listen to the angry, empowering sound of their chanting: "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Fizz-free pop has got to go!"
Well, a critic can dream, can't he? In truth, "All Shook Up," the Elvis Presley-inspired show that is pumping its plastic pelvis at the Palace Theater, is unlikely to evoke anything close to such extreme, last-straw responses from its audiences. Within its unimaginative but ever-expanding subgenre - the prefab musical that takes its score from Top 40 hits of the past - this production actually rates as slicker and more skillful than most.
Certainly, compared with its sickly cousin, "Good Vibrations" (that's the Beach Boys musical at the Eugene O'Neill Theater), "All Shook Up" looks like Jose Canseco at his steroid-plumped peak. Everyone in the show sings more or less on-key. The dance numbers, though short and fitful, are fully synchronized. And several of the performers have something approaching distinctive personalities.
But this relative slickness only highlights the emptiness of "All Shook Up," which uses songs made popular by Presley to fuel a fairy tale about a pleasure-challenged small town during the Eisenhower era. Were it staged in a pint-size theater with cardboard scenery and a campy young cast, "All Shook Up" might be a moderate hoot. (Or it might have been about 30 years ago, anyway.) But inflated to the proportions demanded by a glamour barn like the Palace, it becomes a mind-numbing holler.
As much as any network television show, "All Shook Up," which is directed by Christopher Ashley from a book by Joe DiPietro, appears to have been assembled by committee according to market research on mainstream tastes. By such calculations, the people's palate is bland indeed.
"All Shook Up" has clearly taken as its template "Mamma Mia!," the international monster hit set to the disco throb of Abba songs. But it's easier to take license-stretching liberties with the easy-listening melodies of Abba than it is with the intricate harmonies of the Beach Boys or, getting back to the point, the snarling song stylings of Presley.
In translating surly Presley favorites (from "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Burning Love") into the peppier idiom of Broadway, "All Shook Up" blends these songs into such a bright, brassy blur that it's hard to distinguish one from another. (The musical arrangements and supervision are by Stephen Oremus.) And the numbers have been unconditionally purged of the menacing sex appeal that once made Presley appear so dangerous to parents of teenagers.
Just to make things perfectly clear - and to forestall disappointment for a certain species of fan - there are no bona fide Elvis impersonators in view. The leading man is instead an airbrushed, edgeless composite of the young Presley and Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." A leather-jacketed, bike-riding, blue-suede-shoe-wearing roustabout named Chad, he is played with winking good humor by the hard-bodied Cheyenne Jackson and subjected to the kind of soft, family-friendly parody common to variety-show sketches from four or five decades ago.
The plot: Chad arrives in a small Midwestern town that is smarting under an inhibiting "decency proclamation," instituted by its uptight mayor (Alix Korey), and teaches the squares how to swing. This means that the hormones of just about everybody - from a sweet young garage mechanic (Jenn Gambatese) to her lonely, widowed dad (Jonathan Hadary) - start percolating and love crosses forbidden boundaries of race and gender.
"All Shook Up" crams as many familiar songs as it can into its two acts, with deliberately corny, oft-repeated segues of dialogue. (On first meeting objects of their lust, characters wail the title lyrics from "One Night With You.") For anyone who has seen "Mamma Mia!" - and God forbid, "Good Vibrations" - this is an old game that does not cry out for successive rounds.
The Crayola-colored set (by David Rockwell) and costumes (by David C. Woolard) suggest a more expensive version of those from "Good Vibrations." The requisite vehicles (motorcycles that fly, vintage automobiles) materialize like centerpieces in an industrial trade show. This musical's high point (which is not skyscraping) is a cellblock fantasy sequence for "Jailhouse Rock," which borrows imagery straight from the Presley film of that title. (The deftly executed if standard choreography is by Ken Roberson and Sergio Trujillo.)
You could feel the audience perking up for the jailhouse musical sequence, the only one in the show that feels like a real Elvis-style homage. Otherwise, literal-minded nostalgia seekers would be better off in Las Vegas, where Elvis clones are said to abound.
Like so much on Broadway these days, "All Shook Up" is an echo chamber of cultural references. In addition to Presley songs, the production recycles recycled elements from, among other musicals, "Bye Bye Birdie," "Grease" and "Your Own Thing," the "Twelfth Night"-inspired 1968 rock frolic.
Pretty much everything in this production is a quotation of a quotation of a quotation of, in some cases, yet another quotation. Despite a strong-voiced, amiable cast that sings its collective heart out, all the shaking in "All Shook Up" feels several removes from the kind of firsthand vitality that audiences can't help falling in love with.
Here's one of those questions we didn't expect to have to ask. Which new show is a bigger threat to Broadway's creative future?
Is it better to have "All Shook Up," a dopey but not altogether ignorant jukebox musical that brings some style to the craven attempt to replicate ABBA's "Mamma Mia!" bonanza with Elvis hits? Or is it less dangerous to have the clueless floppola "Good Vibrations" trying to scramble onto that bandwagon with old Beach Boys songs?
In the short run, we preferred the Elvis show, which opened last night at the Palace Theatre with an overqualified creative team and a cheerfully derivative spirit. Taking a longer view, however, the faster that lazy theater producers lose money on this bankrupt formula of ready-made music, the more urgent their motivation will be to encourage new composers and lyricists.
"All Shook Up" is more professional than "Good Vibrations," which isn't the same thing as fabulous news. Joe DiPietro, author of such critic-proof comedies as "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," has cobbled together a cartoon of middle America in the 1950s from the leftovers of "Grease," "Hairspray" and "Footloose." It owes its plot improbabilities to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Twelfth Night." (Shakespeare goes uncredited so as not to frighten the horses.)
"In the middle of a square state, in the middle of a square decade, in a square little town" zooms a tall "Roustabout" (cue song) named Chad (Cheyenne Jackson), complete with motorcycle, leather jacket, sideburns, guitar, pelvis and square jaw.
"My bike," he explains to Natalie (Jenn Gambatese), the spunky grease monkey who wants to "Follow That Dream" (cue song), "is making a jiggly, wiggly sound." (Use your imagination.)
Plugged into the action, such as it is, are unsettling "American Idol" arrangements of Elvis hits and near-misses.
Elvis, of course, changed cultural history by doing covers of black music that were palatable to white audiences, an injustice indirectly addressed by having multiple interracial romances - an unlikely preoccupation in the square little town.
What saves the show from its own squareness is director Christopher Ashley, the high-style, high-camp specialist of Paul Rudnick satires and the recent stage revival of "The Rocky Horror Show."
Along for the ride is the playful and brainy David Rockwell, celebrity-restaurant and musical designer, who, with lights by Donald Holder, casts Edward Hopper shadows on townsfolk repressed by the Decency Proclamations of their uptight lady mayor (Alix Korey) in her pink Cadillac. David C. Woolard's amusing costumes include an ever-increasing variety of blue suede shoes.
Ken Roberson's choreography, with "additional choreography" by Sergio Trujillo, doesn't extend much beyond the predictable rubber-legging and jiggly wiggling. Jackson has the sort of sanitized charisma that may prove irresistible to fans of the early Patrick Swayze. At times, the appealing Gambatese has more of Elvis' curled-lip sneer than Chad does.
Mark Price, as the nerd who loves Natalie, is a nice mix of David Spade and Don Knotts, while Sharon Wilkins and Nikki M. James are amusingly in on the joke as a black restaurant owner and her daughter.
We can't help but suspect that Ashley and his cast are having more fun than we are. Look around. It could be worse.
During high school choir practice, some friends and I would amuse ourselves by trying to imagine, and imitate, how Ethel Merman might have reinterpreted U2 songs. The point, of course, was that artistry celebrated in one style or genre doesn't necessarily translate to another.
I suspect this joke, however obvious, would have been lost on the producers, casting agents and others involved in the new Elvis Presley homage All Shook Up (* out of four), the latest professional karaoke contest to masquerade as a Broadway musical.
Say what you will about Mamma Mia! and Good Vibrations, two other greatest-hits showcases designed to tap into the growing nostalgia and burgeoning bank accounts of aging pop fans.
However off-putting their opportunism and lack of imagination, both at least aimed for musical authenticity, drawing on the expertise of insiders such as ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and Brian Wilson colleague Van Dyke Parks, and enlisting performers with a passing affinity for rock 'n' roll textures.
In contrast, most of the game young cast members of All Shook Up, which opened Thursday at the Palace Theatre, sing and act as if they just stepped off a Marvin Hamlisch tribute tour. There are some pretty and potent voices here, to be sure; but their approach to the material tends to range from painfully self-conscious to outright clueless.
The calculated growls and mannered sneers that sometimes embellish golden oldies such as Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel and That's All Right only add to the false, sterile feel of the numbers.
Joe DiPietro's book is even more tone-deaf. The plot, an unlikely and idiotic hybrid of Grease, Footloose and Twelfth Night, involves a tomboyish mechanic who falls for a guitar-wielding, hip-swiveling, motorcycle-riding drifter with long black sideburns.
Tall, dark and hammy, Cheyenne Jackson plays the Elvis-like leading man with all the sincerity of a Chippendale dancer trying to bilk a drunk matron. Even at his most kitschy, Presley projected a certain earnestness; irony was the last quality you would associate with him.
Yet like many contemporary shows that have nothing new or interesting to say, All Shook Up revels in winking jokes and self-reference -even as it makes lame attempts to touch on issues such as racism and homophobia. Cutting social satire is provided by way of a female mayor, played with cartoonish haughtiness by Alix Korey, who runs around lecturing everyone on moral decency.
Which Elvis fans, you may ask, will want to witness this strange marriage of snark and schlock?
Some of the same ones, I suspect, who were drawn to Las Vegas toward the end of his life - not to catch a glimpse of his former glory, or even to mourn its loss, but to celebrate the same triumph of excess over substance that, come to think of it, has increasingly characterized Broadway musicals in the decades since.
In one number, if I Can Dream, "angels" emerge on motorbikes suspended in midair by wires, sporting shiny suits and pouffy white wings.
The person accompanying me remarked that it was a horrible thing to do to that song.
And to all the others, he should have added.