Whole Lotta Shakin’
By Tom Wachunas
Say what you will about ‘the King,’ but for those of us caught in the thrall of the mid-1960s British Invasion, Elvis Presley’s brand of rock-n-roll seemed like a silly anachronism. Come to think of it, though, I am duly grateful to have survived that drug-besotted flower-child era with my brain still somewhat intact (though some might argue to the contrary).
Seeing the current Canton Players Guild production of All Shook Up (a “jukebox musical” inspired by the songs of Elvis Presley that premiered on Broadway in 2005), directed here by Frank J. Lucas, reminded me that the hip-swiveling crooner’s songs weren’t nearly as ‘silly’ as the conservative backlash they ignited if only for a short while during the Eisenhower years. I really did once know a few folks who labeled what Elvis did (along with many other like-minded entertainers) as “the Devil’s music.”
Enter one Matilda Hyde, the very uptight, self-righteous mayor of a small midwestern town where this story unfolds in 1955. In that role, Teresa Houston brings a deliciously rabid energy and operatic panache to her relentless enforcement of public decency laws. One of the evening’s several show-stopping numbers is Devil in Disguise, wherein the mayor rallies a troupe of teetering senior citizen ladies on wheeled walkers through a hilarious dance
Matilda’s fury has been fueled by the arrival of the lascivious Chad, recently released from jail in the explosive opening number, Jailhouse Rock. He’s a guitar-toting roustabout biker whose every pelvic quiver or throaty utterance makes the womenfolk swoon and otherwise turns the sleepy town on its ear. Jayson Kolbicz’s captivating portrayal of the troublemaking troubadour is remarkably well crafted without being a rubber-stamp impersonation of Elvis. Yes, he can occasionally curl his lip or raise an eyebrow just so, but he’s nonetheless his own man and, quite frankly, a considerably more facile singer and engaging actor than Elvis.
The plot borrows loosely from Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Twelfth Night, and its farcical element of mistaken identities amid wooing intrigues. In this case, Natalie, a lonely tomboy-ish mechanic hopelessly smitten by Chad’s charms and desperate to be closer to him, disguises herself as a fellow male roustabout with startling results. As Natalie, Sarah Karam is an endearing mix of dreamy longing, vulnerability and spunky determination. Her singing is infused with a poignant warmth often punctuated with piercing sweetness.
For that matter, all the core cast members are uniquely adept entertainers who bring a well-defined individuality to their roles both as characters and singers. Kudos to: Eva Ashawnti Roberson as Sylvia, the plain-talking, no-nonsense owner of the local honky-tonk; Ruby Marie Myers as Lorraine, Sylvia’s infectiously energetic teenage daughter involved in “forbidden love” with Dean, the mayor’s military academy son, played by Stephen Robert Carder; Connor Logan Reese as Dennis, Natalie’s lovably nerdy would-be suitor; Brittany Dolinar as Miss Sandra, the sultry, sensuous overseer of the local art museum; Scott Warner as the dutiful, silent Sheriff Earl (who boldly divulges a surprising secret in the end); and Doug Downie, gentle and delightfully awkward in his efforts to be “cool,” as the widowed father of Natalie.
Whatever snarly edginess and/or uncomplicated musicality these Elvis songs might have had in their original incarnations is largely overshadowed here by the elaborate (at times Glee-full, so to speak) and impeccable ensemble harmonies you’d expect from a big giltzy Broadway production. But unless you’re an Elvis purist at heart, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This show injects the material with fresh, soaring choral electricity, further generated by the thoroughly sizzling six-piece band under the direction of keyboardist Steve Parsons. Add to that the vitality of Michael Lawrence Akers’ clever, exhilarating choreography, and all the ingredients for a raucous song fest are solidly in place
That said, both the story line and the vocal arrangements do often drift into purely corny territory. Still, to the die-hard rockers among you I say hey, you, get offa my cloud. Viva la schmaltz.
All Shook Up, Canton Players Guild Mainstage , 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton. Shows THROUGH MARCH 17, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00p.m., Sundays at 2:00p.m. Single tickets $25; 17 and younger $19; Seniors $23. Box Office (330) 453-7617 www.playersguildtheatre.com
PHOTOS by James Dreussi