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BWW Reviews: OC's 3D Theatricals Revives ALL SHOOK UP

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If there's one recurring lesson to learn when mounting a "jukebox" musical—those self-contained stage shows that feebly try to piece together a subpar plot in service of showcasing either a singular music genre, a composers' songbook, or an artist's entire catalog—is that these corralled tunes better be damn enjoyable enough and performed by some incredible singers in order to even keep an audience entertained and interested.

Either critically or commercially, some (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages) have been able to pull it off much better than others (Ring Of Fire, The Times They Are A-Changin' or Boogie Nights, anyone?) As the unwieldy step-child of the Broadway musical, these types of stage shows have always had a bum wrap as weaker, lazier shows that pass off a strangely-woven story as something acceptable for a show's plot, which, really is just an excuse to blare a few pop ditties. Somehow, I shudder to think that, a few decades from now, someone will put together a musical fashioned around Spears or Bieber songs. But, nevertheless, most take to heart that if the songs are revered and well-loved enough—and are sung with infectious enthusiasm by a great-sounding cast—even a groan-inducing story couldn't mar the success or enjoyability of a production.

Luckily, for 3D Theatricals' repeat production of their previously well-received revival of ALL SHOOK UP, this savvy lesson has been giddily absorbed. Using almost all of the same cast and elements from their initial 2010 production at its former home in the OC Pavilion in Santa Ana, this Elvis Presley-centric musical gets a new, rousingly-amplified recreation in their new home at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton. (Just in case you may not have heard, Orange County-based 3D Theatricals has swooped in to rescue and take over for the venue's former residents, the financially-strappEd Fullerton Civic Light Opera).

First produced on Broadway in 2005 with a book by Joe DiPietro, ALL SHOOK UP may not be quite deep and profound, but, by golly, does it ever try its best to be super entertaining! At its core, the show is simply just great, silly fun... featuring a litany of familiar songs from Presley's rock-and-soul catalog of hits that includes "Jailhouse Rock," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Don't Be Cruel," "Can't Help Falling In Love," and, of course, the show's title track. The show clearly treats these songs with a knowing sense of humor, framing them for the audience with an absurd story—loosely based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night—that occasionally plays out as if we're all absolutely in on the joke.

The story requires a bit of leeway from its audience, but their treatment of the show makes it an easy thing to do. Besides, the show is so caught up and adamantly committed in meta-kitsch and self-aware silliness that, before you know it, you're easily swept into giddy submission. Even the over-the-top, campy freeze-fantasy usage of "One Night With You"—a recurring device used throughout the show—is so ridiculously silly, it's hard not to chuckle at its very audacity.

Make no mistake, though, the story here—and all the wacky logistics that surround the plot—involves more stretching than the wrinkled skin at any Newport Beach rejuvenation clinic. Just released from prison (during the rousing, high-energy opener of "Jailhouse Rock"), handsome "roust-about" Chad (the smolderific Joe Mandragona) gets involuntarily sidelined at a small, sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere when his motorcycle develops some mechanical problems.

The bored, muzzled citizens of the town—mostly the women, natch—are intrigued by the sexy new stranger with the confident swagger, the come-hither lip curl, and an oddly-entrancing hip-swivel. His sudden roaring arrival literally jolts everyone (and a broken jukebox) from their hibernation, especially since things have gone cheerlessly depressing all around thanks to some strict rules enacted by the town's cantankerous leader, Mayor Matilda Hyde (Viva Weber). The Mayor has outlawed everything she feels will lead to sin, depravity and chaos: tight clothing, loud exciting music, public displays of affection, and race-mixing.

Angered by the town's inability to wholeheartedly embrace their freedom of self-expression, Chad vows then and there to wake up the town and introduce his life philosophies to everyone, whether they like it or not. After all—as dictated in countless movies where someone gets "stuck" in a small town, waiting for the completion of mechanical repairs—he might as well stick around and drop a little hunka-hunka-burnin' love.

As everyone's piqued curiosities grow, the one most excited of all with Chad's seductive entrance is Natalie (Cassandra Murphy), a young local mechanic who works at her father Jim's auto repair shop. She's instantly infatuated with the newcomer—which is too bad, because little does she know that her own nerdy best friend Dennis (Daniel Dawson) is madly, secretly in love with her.

Chad, for his part, won't even give Natalie a second look, despite her willingness to shed her tomboy-ish mechanic mannerisms with girly pursuits like, oh, wearing a dress (albeit, covered in grease stains). But, alas, Chad's immune from Natalie, mostly because he himself has the hots for the sophisticated and fiery Sandra (the statuesque Kelli Provart), the owner and proprietor of the town's local museum. (Yes, this tumbleweed-infested town has a damn museum. Trust me, it's best to just go with it.)

Culturally-deprived in this sad, little town, Sandra longs for passionate, intellectual stimulation—and a man to help her get that stimulation. If anything else, this wish gives her ammunition to resist Chad's street-wise come-ons. So, in order to win her heart, love-struck Chad enlists smartypants Dennis to be his sidekick, which of course the street cred-starved geek happily accepts. Mutually advantageous, this new position also certainly gives Dennis a direct line in making sure Chad remains as uninterested in Natalie as possible.

Of course—pretty much like Three's Company and many farcical TV sitcoms like it—utter wackiness ensues out of some kind of secret or misunderstanding. All of this only eggs Natalie on to try every drastic scheme possible to turn Chad's head—including the absolutely hare-brained idea of disguising herself as "Ed," a new male sidekick that's a leather-jacketed, motorcycling replacement for Dennis... whom Chad takes a chummy liking to almost instantly. Uh oh.

Meanwhile elsewhere in the town, Natalie's widowed dad Jim (Jamie Snyder) and local tavern owner/single mom Sylvia (the divalicious Amber J. Snead) engage in some mutual, friendly consoling about each other's solo livelihoods as they grow older. But soon timid Jim falls hard for Sandra too, just as Sandra develops a crush on "Ed" after "he" hand-delivers her a Shakespearean sonnet she assumes "he" wrote.

And, as all of that is going down, unbeknownst to Sylvia, her own teen daughter Lorraine (Angela Wildflower Polk)—who, like her mom, is African-American—develops a defiantly taboo secret relationship with local boy Dean (Bobby Perino)—who's Caucasian. They struggle to hide their love affair from everyone, especially from Dean's Fascist-flavored mom, Mayor Hyde, who is currently hell-bent on cracking down on the town's newfound "immoral behavior" she blames squarely on the newly-arrived ex-con Chad.

Okay, got all that? Whew.

Remarkably, in between all of these outrageous plot turns and slapstick shenanigans, the show manages to check off a decent amount of Elvis' wide-ranging catalog of familiar songs, adorably repurposed, of course. While one may notice that the show tips its reverent hat to shows like HAIRSPRAY multiple times throughout, it never quite gets there, but it certainly gives it an admirable try. Nonetheless, there's no denying that the musical interludes are sung and danced quite well here by this super-talented cast—clearly the biggest reason this so-so musical becomes much more awesome than it should be.

Enveloped in the same cool sets and costumes used in Musical Theatre West's own revival a few years back, this production's rather large cast is an accomplished talent pool that sing incredibly well as a collective ensemble. I have to say that the choral sections that are sung by the whole cast is some of the best ensemble singing I've heard from a regional production in a long time.

It deserves mentioning that the consistently marvelous thing so far in every 3D Theatricals production has to be its uncanny ability to tap some great, top-notch, Broadway-ready talent that makes their chosen material shine. The featured performers in ALL SHOOK UP are no exception to the trend. Leading the cast with his mesmerizing, hip-gyrating presence is Mandragona, who has had a few years to really fine-tune Chad as his own since his days playing the same role in the original 1st National Touring production and again for your last year's production for 3D Theatricals. I actually saw the original National Tour when it rolled into Orange County and I must say that his current Chad feels much more lived-in than before. Even further, the guy knows how to (literally) straddle the line between sexiness and vulnerability, with dashes of great comic gravitas.

As Natalie, Cassandra Murphy's got some beautiful pipes and even a surprising lower register she booms out while disguised as her rebellious alter-ego "Ed." She does the tomboy ingenue quite well. Kelli Provart—part Marilyn Monroe, part Ann-Margret—oozes sultriness and seduction with even the slightest of movements, capping off the performance with some growly powerhouse vocals. She's like Mad Men's Joan Holloway-Harris, but with a killer singing voice. As Dennis, Dawson (also one of the three "D's" in 3D Theatricals) has 'superbly awkward geek' down to a science, and gets some of the hugest laughs of the evening without stooping to overly-affected slapstick to get them. Weber, so terrific in 3D Theatricals' production of HELLO DOLLY last season, gets to be deliciously evil this time around and really nails it. Snead and Polk make a terrific mother-daughter team, with perhaps the cast's indisputable best singing voices. Snead's second act 11 o'clock ballad "There's Always Me" followed immediately by some soul-stirring vocal runs in the beautifully capped reprise of "Can't Help Falling In Love" are truly remarkable.

Under the confident direction of 3D Theatricals' Artistic Director T.J. Dawson, this production of ALL SHOOK UP—for all intents and purposes—ultimately comes off as a genuinely effervescent, exciting show that truly strives to entertain across the board. There's a palpable "can do" spirit inherent in most of this director's efforts, and this enlarged re-staging of a show 3DT already performed triumphantly once before only serves to remind people of that very spirit, and allows this theater company to spread its wings to an even wider audience.

While Elvis' music certainly hums with easy familiarity on their own, their re-imagined orchestrations in the show provide a plethora of chances to see some awe-inducing, thrillingly-staged dance sequences, here spearheaded by choreographer Dana Solimando and associate choreographer Paul Romero, Jr. This ensemble moves and struts as if they've been doing this show for years! From the spectacular opening dance riot of "Jailhouse Rock" to the flashy spectacle of the cheery finale, the exhilarating dance numbers add so much to the enjoyment of this musical.

All in all, from start to finish—and plenty of places in between—3D Theatricals' ALL SHOOK UP leaps, sings, and shakes with bright, beaming panache, keenly cognizant of its shortcomings by knowingly elevating its best assets: the cute sets, the adorable costumes, the tongue-in-cheek line readings, the awesome choreography and, of course, the performances of this stellar ensemble cast. More than anything, the show really excels in wearing its silliness like a badge of honor. To borrow lyrics from the King himself, you "can't help falling in love"... with this really fun revival.


Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos of 3D Theatricals Presentation of ALL SHOOK UP by Alysa Brennan. From top to bottom: Joe Mandragona as Chad; Viva Weber as Mayor Matilda Hyde; the cast; Cassandra Murphy as Natalie (with Madragona).

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Performances of 3D Theatricals' ALL SHOOK UP continue at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through May 29, 2011 and are scheduled Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. 

The Plummer Auditorium is located at 201 East Champan Avenue in the city of Fullerton.

For tickets or more information, call 714-589-2770 or visit www.3DTshows.com.


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