The stage musical “All Shook Up” has something very much in common with one of those by-the-numbers Elvis Presley “teen movies” from the mid-to-late 1960s: a sanitation of the Elvis rebel spirit. There’s nothing remotely dangerous about either, nothing overtly heated or sexual. The Elvis of films like “Tickle Me” is a good-looking but eminently good guy. The folks in “All Shook Up” who sing 26 tunes made popular by Presley, including the Elvis-evoking Chad (referred to throughout as “The Roustabout”), are shiny, happy people.
The qualitative difference between one of those old Elvis flicks and “All Shook Up,” which opened Saturday on San Diego Musical Theatre’s Gaslamp Quarter stage, is the music. The 2004 jukebox musical is bursting with Elvis hits. To name just a few: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Teddy Bear,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Jailhouse Rock” (which opens the show) and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the most beautifully adapted number among the more than two dozen included.
Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”) wrote the book for “All Shook Up,” which weaves these Elvis songs through a benign but likable story about what happens to the denizens of a small midwestern town one summer in the mid-’50s when a motorcycle-riding stranger (Jesse Bradley, the aforementioned Chad) drifts into their midst. At the time, everyone’s under the oppressive thumb of the “Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act,” which expressly prohibits “loud music, public necking and tight pants.”
DiPietro’s master stroke was enhancing what might have been a pedestrian premise with a gambit right out of one of Shakespeare’s masked romantic comedies. When smitten Natalie Haller (Krista Feallock) gets nowhere with Chad, who has pop eyes for the sensuous town museum curator Miss Sandra (Sami Nye), she disguises herself as “Ed,” and becomes Chad’s fraternal sidekick. Heavens to “As You Like It”!
Further mining The Bard, almost everybody in this town is in love with somebody elusive or unlikely. Or, by story’s end, he or she discovers a truer love right under his or her nose.
Most of the Presley tunes employed fit snugly into the storytelling. A few others function as little more than transitional punch lines. Still, an Elvis hit is an Elvis hit. “All Shook Up,” directed at SDMT by Robert J. Townsend, is not explicitly about Presley, but even with all the Shakespeare-like machinations, his presence looms.
Bradley and Feallock are pleasing leads, though the latter’s male disguise is undermined by a clumsy, distractingly odd hat. Erin Vanderhyde as proprietor of Sylvia’s Honky-Tonk renders a knockout “There’s Always Me,” and Brooke Henderson, playing her daughter Lorraine who is one-half of a charming interracial romance, possesses a voice so sweet it’s a shame she doesn’t get a solo of her own.
The choreography by Michael Mizerany is exuberant, maximizing every square foot of the Horton Grand Theatre stage. It’s a reminder that so many of Elvis Presley’s beloved hits were made for dancing, even if you’ve never swiveled a hip in your life.
(Review originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on 8/5/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.