Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Theater review: Can’t help falling in love with All Shook Up in Denton
Imagine Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in the 1950s, with Elvis for a soundtrack. That's All Shook Up.
DENTON All Shook Up is the 2004 American musical with Elvis Presley music, a book by Joe DiPietro, and is based on William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. And the space for Music Theatre of Denton’s production of this musical could not be more fitting of that great 1950s era.
Chad, the Roustabout, is being released from prison. He rides off on his motorcycle to spread his love and music, where ever he may wander.
His travels soon take him to a town somewhere in the heartland, USA where the citizens have no joy since Mayor Matilda created a law making it illegal to dance, be happy or “neck” in public. But it seems everyone in town is having a hard time following those rules as everyone falls in love with someone else, there are confusions in gender and the whole thing takes place in 24 hours. And though the story line may at times confuse you, it will make you smile. The music may cause you to reminisce and go buy more Elvis records, CDs, or download his music online.
Kevin Brown’s set design for this production is two stories tall and covers the entire width of the stage. In the opening scene, the set represents the interior of a prison with prisoners on both levels holding rectangle frames to represent prison bars. Throughout the remainder of the show, the upper level of the set is used as the street walkway on which Mayor Matlida observes the actions of the roustabout and townspeople as they fall in love and proceed to violate the laws against dancing and having fun. During the first act, the upper level of the set is decorated with pictures of records and other signs and symbols of the 1950s. On stage right and stage left side are stairs going to the second level. There are also two fireman poles, and during the jailhouse scene the prisoners slide down them for a very captivating visual. Later in the show, when the poles are used for pole dancing, there is a distinctly different kind of appeal.
The lower level of the set is alternately the interior of the restaurant, street scene, deserted fairgrounds, wedding chapel,and a garden with live Greek statues. During the restaurant scenes, two counter areas are wheeled on for the customers to use. The placement of those counters creates a bottleneck center stage that hinders actors as they enter and exit upstage center. In slight technical glitches, stage hands came on stage either too early or too late to move the counters and were highly visible. In one scene, a stage hand could easily be seen coming on stage and crouching behind one of the counters, apparently in preparation to move it offstage for the next scene. Far downstage right is designed to be an auto/motorcycle mechanic area while the downstage left area has multiple uses including a shoe store.
Two motorcycles are included in this production. While they are beautiful motorcycles from the time period of the show, it was obvious that moving the motorcycles on and off was not an easy task and created opportunities for mishaps. The headlight on one motorcycle was turned on and shone directly into the audience, temporarily blinding those in front of the light. It was also obvious that the motorcycles were too heavy for one actor to move alone.
For the most part, the lighting design by Scott William Davis is appealing and very effective. The entire stage is used at various times throughout the production and this can present a potential challenge, lighting wise. Not so for Davis. During special scenes, such as the Greek Garden scene, the lighting highlights the creative costuming of the actors as the statues. During the dueling guitar scenes between the Mayor and her Angelettes and Chad and his Devilettes, reds lights are used to create the right mood. Though there was a scene in which an upstage spot light, while attempting to focus on an actor downstage, instead was positioned to shine into the center of the audience where I was sitting, causing me to have to close my eyes until it was corrected.
Danica Bergeron does a generally effective job with the sound, though there are occasions when the music overpowers the voices of the actors.
Jana Edele’s choreography has several numbers that would have been fun to watch if the dancers were more confident. With all of the more complicated dance moves, most of them appear unsure of themselves, which creates inconsistent timing in dances that, if crisp, would be stunning. As I watched the dancers, most of the male dancers looked at each other for direction and appeared confused and uncomfortable. Most of the female dancers are confident, fluid, and appear to enjoy themselves during the dances.
The team of Leslie Ann Ligon and Rochelle Hudson does an amazing job of costuming this show. All of the costumes are time period appropriate and help create the persona of the characters. Some of the many costume challenges are mastered including poodle skirts, 1950s style sweaters, black leather jackets and pants, white leather jacket, military school uniform, school jackets and pants, and lots of blue suede shoes. Costuming for many of the girls appear conservative, but with a slight change become much less so. The scene with the Greek statues bears a special note. The costumes that the actors wear appear to be solid marble. However, when the actors change positions, it is obvious that instead of marble, they extremely well-designed costume that allows flexibility while maintaining the appearance of being solid. They are in particular visually stunning.
This show is full of very good singers and some will simply amaze you. Tyler Hamilton plays Chad, the roustabout, the Elvis Presley type that the guys want to hang out with and the girls want to make out with. Hamilton has a wonderful voice that hits all of the right notes and could give a decent concert of Elvis songs. However, the boyish earnestness that Hamilton uses throughout the show presents a maturity level and acting style that doesn’t effectively show Chad as the “man’s man” the guys want to hang out with nor the ladies’ man the girls want to make out with. His characterization, though, may have made a good Puck in a different Shakespeare play. During most of his songs, the words are right, the right notes are there but the passion is missing. It’s as if he is going through the motions but not connecting to the feelings.
Tori Hudson as Natalie Haller has a very powerful voice that can reach out and have an emotional impact on the audience. In her early scenes, Hudson believably presents a girl that is not interested in girly things like dresses and boys. She is straightforward, blunt, and fun to watch. Having on occasion played multiple characters myself in various plays, I can attest to how difficult it is to successfully and consistently maintain the characteristics of each throughout the performance. Hudson handles the changes, the gestures, and other characteristics well as she transitions between the characters. Her voice, however, does not always match the gender role. Her action in the garden are fun to watch as Hudson shows the humor and confusion of a girl trying to seduce a guy who is really a girl and doesn’t want to tell the other girl of that fact. Despite occasional overacting and overplaying the role, Hudson uses the type of gender confusion comedic humor that is so Shakespearean and pulls it off well.
Heather Shore as Miss Sandra plays a character that is the stereo-typical contradiction of a really gorgeous and sexy girl who is only interested in a guy who can stimulate her mind. While dressing in a costume that appears conservative, though a tad tight and form fitting, Shore presents a Sandra who, believably and somewhat campy, transitions between the highly intellectual museum curator that is disdainful of Chad and other non intellectual or romantic boys, to the seductress full of Burning Love. This is another plot twist that I will not go into as you need to see the musical to follow the twists. When she sings “Let Yourself Go” in the Greek Garden scene, she has the attention of almost every guy in the audience.
Cameron Potts plays Dennis, Natalie’s best friend. He is one of several actors in the show whose total performance, both vocally and acting-wise, really hits the mark and is a character you will want to focus on when Potts is on stage. The costume he wears will identify him as a geek or a nerd, though it is his acting skills and choices that make the character so believable and delightful. From his first interaction with Natalie, we see that he has feelings for her but cannot tell her. Potts presents a character that is believable in every vocal inflection, whether speaking or singing, as well as his mannerisms and movement. His presentation of Dennis is perfect, from the way he walks to his facial and hand gestures that genuinely match what Dennis is thinking or doing in each scene. When Potts sings “It Hurts Me,” the full range of his well-trained voice is fully appreciated.
There are scenes in which multiple characters are interacting yet singing different songs. One of the several noteworthy scenes is when Chad is trying to hit on Sandra, only to be rebuffed. While Chad is singing “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” to Sandra, with Dennis backing him up, Sandra is singing “(You Ain’t Nothing but a) Hound Dog” to Chad, with Natalie backing her up. The way their vocals meld and the actors interact in this scene makes it very entertaining to watch.
Gennie Ware as Sylvia is simply brilliant. Ware plays Sylvia so naturally and with such ease that the audience might think, “What a minute, this actor isn’t acting. She is just being herself.” While I do not personally know Ware and so cannot attest to how she is off stage, I do know the art of acting is simply being the character in such a way that the audience completely accepts that this is a real person. Ware accomplishes this in the way she plays Sylvia with such a natural acting style, pacing of dialogue, reactions to other actors on stage, and her singing that includes the passion that will bring you into her world. When she sings “There’s Always Me” after a scene with Jim, and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with the rest of the company during the closing scene of the first act, the strength in her voice and the heartfelt passion brought a tear to my eye.
Pat Watson as Jim Haller is impressive to watch. His bio in the playbill describes a trained actor with experience. I could see this as I watched his presentation of Jim, Natalie’s widowed father. Watson initially shows a man still grieving over his wife and caring for his daughter. His actions and choices are natural and real, especially his interactions with Natalie and Sylvia. I could easily believe I was watching a real father and daughter interact, it was that natural. The characters Sylvia and Jim have such a comfortable level of interacting and teasing each other, and Watson and Wares’ timing with each other in their scenes are so natural and flow so well, I could believe they really have known each other for years. When Jim encounters Sandra, he falls madly in love - or is it lust? You decide. Watson playfully shows a character that suddenly becomes tongue-tied and acts like an immature teenager. He handles this transition well and plays it seriously which adds to the humor.
Stephanie Felton as Mayor Matilda Hyde is the opposing force to what Chad brings to town. The mayor’s goal is for the town to have no passion and limited fun. Felton plays Matilda as a very strict authoritarian figure. Felton also brings an over-the-top edge to this character that allows the mayor to be intimidating, while juxtaposing an undercurrent of empathy with the teenagers who just want to fall in love and have fun. The reasons for this are explained in the final scenes of the show. In one scene Matilda enters onto the upper leve, followed by the Angelettes all dressed in white with angel wings, and begins singing as a warning to the town, “Devil in Disguise,” referring to Chad. At which point, Chad and the Devilettes walk on stage all are dressed in red, and thus begins what appears to be a guitar duel, reminiscent of more current country songs. During this scene Felton is way over-the-top as she plays the guitar over her head, between her legs and makes quite a show of the competition. Meanwhile, Chad is also playing his guitar on the lower level. However, during most of this scene he has his back completely to the audience so that they have no chance to enjoy his reactions.
In the final scenes, Felton changes the direction of Matilda’s authoritarian approach to a more tender approach. Throughout the show Felton commits to acting choices that always make her character interesting and a focal point when she is on stage.
Imagine Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in the 1950s, in heartland America, possibly in Texas, and performed to the songs and style of Elvis Presley or the bad boy image of James Dean, and you have All Shook Up. Music Theatre of Denton’s production is fun, with lively music that is set to a magical time, such as many Shakespeare comedies where people confuse identities and discover who they are. After all, this is a musical. A patron sitting in front of me had commented to another patron that this was a cute show. It is more than a cute show. It is a fun show. Yes, there are challenges that can always occur in live theatre. But the technical aspects of the show will impress you and the singing and acting will amaze you. Do arrive early or you may have to walk a few blocks to find an open parking space. No matter though. This musical is worth the extra steps for an evening or afternoon of enjoyment.
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