One could blame the wave of jukebox musicals on "Mamma Mia," its cargo of ABBA songs inspiring audiences to sing along in their seats and dance in the aisles, and "Movin’ Out," with its Billy Joel songbook propelling a brilliantly danced drama. Sometimes this too-lazy-to-write-an-original score conceit produces a dud like "Good Vibrations," however indulging it was with the Beach Boys canon. Somehow the collaborators of "All Shook Up" – Joe DiPietro (book), Stephen Oremus (musical direction and arrangements), and Christopher Ashley (direction) – have got it right, weaving the songs made famous by Elvis Presley into a fast and funny plot synthesized from various Shakespeare’s comedies, notably "Twelfth Night." What a perfect fit it turns out to be, and what a joyous excursion back, not to Elizabethan times, but to the mid-1950s in a small mid-western town where the despondent love-thwarted habitues of Sylvia’s bar are likely to be heard singing "Heartbreak Hotel."
Things are looking pretty glum for these yokels until hunky sexy self-assured biker Chad (Cheyenne Jackson) rides into town toting his trusty guitar announcing he’s a "Roustabout." ("I’m just a roving roustabout with a song in his soul and a love for the ladies."). That’s enough to set faint hearts a flutter but also to fire up the ire of Mayor Matilda Hyde (Alix Korey), who has recently passed a proclamation to ban public necking and everything she considers "dirty."
This, of course, is just the engine to inspire some convoluted romantics involving Chad with pert and pretty grease monkey Natalie (Jenn Gambatese), who ignores the attentions of nerdy poet Dennis (Mark Price) once she sees Chad, who only has eyes for Miss Sandra (Lee Hocking), the curator at the local museum, who is the enamored of Natalie’s widowed father, Jim (Jonathan Hadary), who doesn’t realize that African-American Sylvia (Sharon Wilkins) only has eyes for him. No. That isn’t all. There’s a hot interracial romance going on between Sylvia’s daughter, Lorraine (Nikki M. James) and the mayor’s son, Dean (Curtis Holbrook), a cadet, who let us know it’s "Now or Never."
Okay, you get the picture. But it’s the joyous, boundless energy that emanates from the excellent company as they dance, sing, and otherwise invigorate this wittily conceived and imaginatively staged musical. Ken Roberson’s choreography, including a rousing ensemble number built around "Jail House Rock," is never less than buoyant. You won’t find a more magnetic or more ingratiating musical performer than the comely Jackson, whose smiles seem to be in constant competition with his swivels. Ashley’s ebullient direction keeps the entire company ready to "Let Yourself Go," through David Rockwell’s brightly whimsical settings. And everyone looks appropriately "All Shook Up" (even in "Blue Suede Shoes") in David C. Woolard’s 1950s breezy clothes.
All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway. 212-307-4100.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Yes, it flies. The car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that is, not the musical that otherwise lumbers about even more mechanically on the stage of the renamed Hilton Theater. Not quite as stultifying perhaps as the 1968 film based Ian Fleming’s children’s book but then again one would hope not considering the $100 cost of a seat. But live theater is more than stage gimmickry and sadly this musical offers little to commend it either as an entertainment for children or unsuspecting adults.
The plot, which has to do with a rather oddball inventor widower who constructs a car that will fly, and the secondary one that involves the rulers of a despotic country, Vulgaria, where children are outlawed and sent to underground prisons, a hardly veiled consideration of Nazis and Jews, tends to be as depressing as it is disengaging.
Aside from the title song and that other even more obnoxious "Truly Scrumptious," the Sherman brothers’ songs have as much connect and continuity to the action as would reprises of the national anthem. It is easy to see where the money went as the cumbersome sets (by Anthony Ward) roll on and off, up and down and otherwise blink with cosmic invention. Of the many characters who partake in the misadventure, even the extraordinarily talented Raul Esparza fails to get a grip on his role as Caractacus the inventor, and too often gets lost in the shuffle of effects and even supporting characters. Among these are Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell, as the Baron and Baroness Bomburt of Vulgaria. Their interplay, however expertly executed, is much too campy for a child to appreciate. Alternating between campy and just plain creepy, the over-populated productions numbers (choreographed by Gillian Lynne) are simply intrusive.
Would that our appreciation and awe for the car, an old Grand Prix jalopy, remade by Caractacus into a gleaming flying spectacle, extended to our concerns for the youngsters Jeremy (Henry Hodges) and Jemima (Ellen Marlow), and the bland romance between Caractacus and the truly expendable, if lovely, Truly (Erin Dilly). Their trials and tribulations are prompted by the toy-obsessed Baron who is determined to have the car. He sends a pair of bumbling spies – Goran (Chip Zien) and Boris (Robert Sella) – but they instead abduct grandpa Potts (Philip Bosco). Of course, Caractacus, Truly, and the children go in pursuit, only to have the children kidnapped by the childcatcher (Kevin Cahoon).
It’s hard to say whether it is the grievously unfunny protracted shtick of Zien and Sella, the sheer repulsiveness of Cahoon’s Nosferatu-like presence, or the psycho-sexual pretensions of the Baron and Baroness that pushes the show into a realm of the truly bizarre. Whatever it was that director Adrian Noble was after, it must have escaped into the rafters with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42nd Street. 212-307-4100.