I was too young to appreciate Elvis in his pomp. Yet his music, and celebrity, is ubiquitous, and a little distance is no bad thing, providing context and time for balanced appreciation. When he burst onto the scene he was an enfant terrible, now his country and gospel roots make him seem decidedly mainstream. An integral part of the story of pop.
A jukebox musical, “All Shook Up” was first performed in Chicago in December 2004, before transferring to Broadway the following year. It did not last the summer, and has been largely forgotten. But Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre wisely reasoned that with the greater acceptance fourteen years later of the jukebox genre, an iconic popular star, a rich songbook, and plenty of rock n roll dancing, they should revive it.
The story loosely draws upon “Twelfth Night”, but in truth the narrative is Much Ado About Nothing, apart from the music – which is what the audience have come to see and hear, and is where the show’s strength and power lies. It is like watching one of Elvis’s own movies, but live and in colour with glossy production values, and songs just bursting to be sung. There is a lot of music to cram in, an Elvis fan pleasing 30 musical numbers, including reprises.
The links between the songs are that Chad stops by a small town to get his bike repaired. While there, he shakes up the dreary lives of the town’s citizens, reprising the theme of Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World”. Soon everybody is falling in love with someone who loves somebody else. But not so irrevocably that a song cannot come to the rescue, and all the couples naturally find happiness in time for the finale.
A strength of the show is that this is not an Elvis showcase, with its success dependent upon an Elvis impersonator. Chad, the lead character, is a sexually-charged, leather-jacketed motorcyclist. But there the familiarity stops in a shrewd piece of casting by Director Elisa Millward. Adam Gregory has light, not slicked back black hair. He has plenty of verbal swagger, but much of it is comic, and he plays the part in a self-deprecating, self- effacing manner. Confident and assured, he allows others around him plenty of space to shine, performing the songs as himself, not in Elvis imitation. It works, much credit is due to Millward and himself for pulling it off.
Opposite Chad, Lucy Surtees plays love interest Natalie/ Ed whose slender good looks have to be concealed until the final scene. She convinces as Ed, as well as Natalie, having to move from awkward tomboy, to awkward teenage boy, to bombshell beauty at the close, doing all with consummate skill.
Two comic parts provide the evening with some essential levity, Tony Orbell delights as gawky, gangly nerdy Dennis, and sideman to Chad. Louise Grifferty has the most fun as the kill-joy Mayoress in a portrayal which wickedly mixes Miss Hannigan with Cruella de Ville, and ends with a liaison with her security which will have been familiar to anyone watching Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard on BBC1.
Sheila Pearson has done a tremendous job as Musical Director. It has been adapted for musical theatre, choral parts, and female leads, without neutering the spirit of the original arrangements. Her ten- piece band is so accomplished, Elvis himself would surely have engaged them, a four piece brass section combining with the wood stage to produce a gorgeous, rich, timbre.
An advantage of amateur productions is the ability to produce large cast numbers at relatively little cost. Pearson draws out some powerful chorus work, while choreographer Maggie Jackson has a field day with Rock n Roll dances galore, plenty of flared skirts, and an unusually sharp front line, which sometimes was part of an all singing, all dancing, forty strong ensemble. The lead vocals are liberally shared with not a weak link in earshot.
The score is commendably eclectic. Of course we hear “Jailhouse Rock,” which opens the show revealing an impressive jail set pleasingly realised by Production Manager Paul Lumsden and vibrantly lit by Steven Rainsford. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Teddy Bear,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Love Me Tender,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and “Burning Love” follow, but the song driven narrative requires some quirky selections to develop the story. Thus, we are also treated to lesser known material such as “Roustabout,” “Follow That Dream,” and “I Don’t Want To,” from the Girls! Girls! Girls! soundtrack.
Acting demands are slight, if in doubt say it in a song, and they do. The set up for “It’s Now or Never” is so cheesy that every one of the audience could have had an omelette, yet it is done with such panache by the cast that it evokes a smile not a groan. By contrast, the fairground dance sequence is razor sharp, economical, and straight out of Grease, I could have sworn that Olivia Newton John was up there somewhere! However ” C’mon Everybody” is the night’s big production showstopper half way through the first half.
The enthusiasm, vim and brio of cast and musicians swamp the auditorium, by the end the contagion is complete, with no chorus not sung along to, no foot not tapping, no hands not clapping along. Above all, it is great fun, a lavishly, brightly costumed, show which does great credit to all involved. “All Shook Up” was Elvis’ biggest chart record , inspired so it is claimed by a shaken up bottle of Pepsi. Glass bottles of Pepsi may be a throwback now, but the music lives on in this production, leaving cast, musicians and audience – all shook up. Runs until 22nd September.