“I vote for ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls,’” I hear someone say as I walk backstage at the Springfield Muni Opera. I look up and see director Anna Bussing caught in a brief debate with a member of her cast. They compromise, and moments later Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasts from the speakers. The 40 singers, dancers and actors of All Shook Up are belting out the rock anthem as a pre-show warm-up. I walk around the corner to the front of the house where arriving visitors hear oldies music pumped through the stereo system, unaware of the antics and hijinks happening on the other side of the stage.
Thirteen jailbirds rotate moving set pieces, smiling as they flip and spin each other around the main character in the opening number, a raucous rendition of “Jailhouse Rock.” Yes, being in the classic rock ’n roll musical is as fun as it looks. It’s taken the young cast eight weeks to get to opening night. During the journey, they’ve navigated the obstacles that come with bringing a complex show to the large Muni stage – and although a brief rainfall forced the dancers to simplify some steps on opening night, the cast has come out unscathed.
All Shook Up is a fast-paced musical comedy that blends the music of Elvis Presley with the plot of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. A company of featured dancers and back-up singers fills the large stage for most of the show. It’s a demanding production that requires talent and precision. And through it all one word has come to define the experience: fun. “We started doing some things that make the mood light and help us forget about the stress of doing what we’re doing,” says recent Glenwood High School graduate Sophie Lanser, who plays the female lead, Natalie. She was chatting with some of her costars after a late-night rehearsal when they decided to create a series of theme nights. Over the last weeks of rehearsals, the actors came dressed in coordinated outfits. There was a beach day, a superhero day, and even a dress-like-the-director day. Gavin Gardner plays Chad, the Elvis character. He says the theme nights helped people interact and bond as they started each rehearsal with a laugh.
All Shook Up takes the audience back to the summer of 1955 and into a small and oppressive Midwestern town with rules that prohibit PDA, dancing and rock ’n roll. Natalie falls for Chad, a guitar-playing roustabout who is in love with another out-of-towner. Shakespearean love triangles weave and tangle as Chad uses his music to reawaken the stagnant town.
Gardner is no Elvis, and that’s a good thing. Bussing could have easily yielded to the temptation to cast an Elvis impersonator as Chad, but instead gives Gardner the freedom to bring his own interpretation to the character. Although a troublesome microphone rendered him mute for far too long, he’s a strong performer with energy and charisma that seem to fuel his colleagues on the stage. The real highlight, however, is Lanser as Natalie, who keeps pace with Gardner, commands the stage, shows the full range of her strong voice and takes ownership of a complicated and comedic cross-dressing role that would be difficult for older and more experienced actors.
After a 2013 season without a real show-stopping dance musical, All Shook Up provides just that. The show is a welcome diversion from the staples of community theater, and although it’s a repeat from 2008, audiences are likely unfamiliar with the musical by Joe DiPietro that opened on Broadway in 2005 and closed after just 213 performances. Don’t let that unfamiliarity keep you away. Dozens of well-known songs are themselves spliced, rearranged, redone and shaken up. The crew has filled a bi-level stage with some of the best singing and dancing around. The performances are exceptional and the music is lively. All Shook Up is good, old-fashioned fun.
Zach Baliva is a filmmaker and journalist living in Chatham. Zachbaliva@gmail.com.