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NKU‘s All Shook Up Shakes Up the Elvis Repertoire

Review by Doug Iden of All Shook Up: NKU

All Shook Up is the perfect venue for the NKU School of the Arts (SOTA) musical program. The show is loud, energetic, brash, enthusiastic, campy, over-the-top and replete with songs which Elvis Presley made famous including the title song, “Follow That Dream”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel” among many others. If you don’t recognize those songs, you’ve lived in a cave too long.

Do not confuse this show with Shakespeare or Arthur Miller – heavy drama it is not. Initially derided by New York critics as a “juke box” musical, All Shook Up has found its niche audience with many school productions such as his one. The story, such as it is, is the classic “boy meets girl”, “boy loses girl”, “boy gets confused about whether his girl is a girl or a boy”, “boy gets girl back again (for a couple of scenes)” and somehow, it all sorts itself out by the last scene. But, don’t try to follow the plot – you may get a headache or need Dramamine. Just let the show wash over you and enjoy the roller coaster ride through the silliness. When you arrive at the end, you will be exhausted but better off for your trip.

The show opens with a re-creation of the prison scene from the movie Jailhouse Rock when Chad (Xander Wells) is released and ends up in a small town. Dubbed the “troubadour”, Chad rebels against the prohibition against rock and roll music by the female mayor of the town (with echoes of Footloose). There, he is met by a host of local characters, each trying to sort out their love lives without much success. Chad acts as catalyst for the various romances which quickly assumes the mantle of sex farce with gender bending, mistaken identities, miscommunications and assorted pratfalls. Wells, as the “Elvis” character, is charismatic and self-confident until he meets his love named Ed who, in reality, is a girl posing as a guy. (Actually, it does sound a little like Twelfth Night so ignore my previous comment about it being non-Shakespearean.) Wells is very dynamic in the role and does a credible “Elvis” with songs including “Roustabout”, “Love Me Tender” and “I Don’t Want to”.

Natalie Haller (Melissa Cathcart) is a local girl in love with Chad but assumes the Ed persona to get close to him. Cathcart plays the dual role well as she belts out songs including “One Night With You” and “Fools Fall in Love”. (There is a lot of music including 24 songs and several reprises.) Natalie’s father Jim Haller (played by Sam Johnson) is recovering from the recent death of his wife but wants to start dating again and pursues a much younger new resident to town named Miss Sandra (Elle Chancellor). Johnson seemed to have some difficulties early on portraying a character much older than himself but recovered nicely when he started booming songs like “The Power of Love” and several strong duets with Xander Wells. However, Jim should have been looking at his old friend Sylvia (Brittany Hayes) who does a star turn in the second act with the torch song “There’s Always Me”.

But, wait, we’re not through yet with the labyrinthine sub-plots. (Halfway through the show, I had to do a relationship chart to keep track of everybody. You don’t need to follow the story but, as a reviewer, I’m supposed to.) Anyway, another couple to be heard from is Lorraine (Gabriela Rivera) and the Mayor’s son Dean (Trey Paris) who has decided not to go back to military school but, rather, spend time with Lorraine. Again, both performers have powerful voices highlighted by the duet “It’s Now or Never”. Then there is Dennis, a very nerdy guy who walks around in short pants and long socks, who is in love with Natalie (who is not in love with him). Dennis (Aaron Marshall) is very shy but finally declares his love for Natalie only to find that Natalie/Ed is in love with Chad. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dennis meets Miss Sandra who is looking for a semi-educated man (a la Marian the Librarian). (At this point, I threw out my relationship chart and just enjoyed the show.) Marshall (as Dennis) sings a number of songs highlighted by “It Hurts Me” and Elle Chancellor steals a scene danced with statues from her museum while singing “Let Yourself Go”. Aiding in the singing and dancing are an ensemble of 12 men and women plus a “pit” group of singers (Matthew Nassida, Chloe Price and Adria Whitfill) who do backup vocals in a similar vein to those for actual Motown and Rock and Roll performers,

The musical highlight of the show, however, is the number at the end of the first act. Each of the characters sings a brief solo about their individual yearnings and are then are joined by the entire cast in a very powerful choral rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love”.

The set is very simple with little more than a series of artistic risers with occasional props such as tables, a piano and a juke box, carried onstage by the performers. There is an 11 person band onstage for the entire performance playing a combination of guitars, keyboards, brass, reeds and percussion led by Music Director Jamey Strawn. The lively choreography was created by Heather Britt with some interesting (and comic) costumes by Daryl Harris. A highlight, though, are three electronic boards against the back wall. Normally, I find computer graphics in the theater very annoying but Video Designer Terry Powell has created some very interesting illusions including pictures and psychedelic mood pieces which both help tell the story and set the emotional tone of the play. This technique worked very effectively during the number “Devil in Disguise”.

Consequently, “C’mon Everybody”, put on your “Blue Suede Shoes”, grab your “Teddy Bear” and “Let Yourself Go” by rolling on down to NKU for All Shook Up continuing through February 26. All Shook Up continues at the Corbett Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through February 26. Tickets are available at the box office, https://artscience.NKU.edu/departments/theatre/season/mainstage4.html.