“A bless my soul what is wrong with me; I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree…. I’m in love, I’m all shook up.”
So goes the Elvis Presley hit “All Shook Up,” now the title of a Laguna Playhouse musical eliciting critical and audience acclaim. It’s scheduled to run through Aug. 7, even without any Elvis sightings to date.
Instead there are plenty of permutations on love as a tricky business as nearly everyone is falling in love but with the wrong someone before finding their intended match. If that concept sounds vaguely familiar, it also happens to be the overarching theme of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
Tony award-winning playwright Joe Di Pietro loosely bases the story first performed on Broadway in 2005 on the Bard’s penchant for comedies that include disguises and gender bending.
What’s entirely original is setting the action to Elvis Presley songs performed by a spirited cast of 16 performers, who sing and dance into each other’s hearts and those of the opening night audience. (A pox though on the superannuated males emitting stadium whistles in place of applause.)
Di Pietro set the scene in a small Midwest burg. There, sexy blond newcomer Sandra (Jill Slyter), a newly hired curator for its museum, derides the town as one where “everyone marries their cousin.”
The stifling atmosphere stems from “The Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act,” which prohibits public necking, loud music, tight clothes and anything else vaguely risqué. Michelle Bendetti deftly embodies town mayor Matilda Hyde, a tight-laced shrew who enforces the letter of the law, who later reveals her own dark secret.
Meanwhile, the town’s teen-aged population finds ways to circumvent her dictums, while the adults fumble while sorting out their own affairs of the heart.
Rebellion erupts with the arrival of Chad, a motorcycle-riding, guitar-toting ladies’ man just released from jail for “riling up women” elsewhere. Hence the production begins with “Jail House Rock,” a number replete with a dour warden and sexy guards.
Chad soon riles up Natalie (Lily Ganser), a pretty mechanic who does not score points with the troubadour biker. Sensing opportunity to become his buddy, she transforms herself into Ed, Chad’s sidekick. Ganser embodies lovelorn Natalie with aplomb, but as Ed, replete with greased-on beard, becomes a bit hard to believe. No matter, Sandra falls for Ed after he hands her a note containing a Shakespeare sonnet ostensibly sent by Chad, who vainly tries to convince her that he’s more than a testosterone-soaked playboy. The unintended result is that Sandra falls for Ed, but let’s not give it all away here.
Sandra is not the only one who falls for Ed. Chad becomes attracted to his sidekick and new best friend, ready to abandon heterosexuality for affections unknown and unsettling.
Then there is Dennis, an aspiring dentist with a crush on Natalie and a penchant for Shakespeare, who provides the play’s most surprising character transformation. Christopher Hansell’s versatility in morphing Dennis from lovestruck geek to buoyant bridegroom is a treat.
Along the way is an engaging wealth of Presley songs, hip waggling and amorous subplots tied together with “One Night With You,” written by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King.
Under the creative guidance of musical director Jeffrey Biering and choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan, the entire ensemble rocks to recorded music, singing and dancing on cue without the benefit of a live band. Dwan Hayes becomes a sort of mother courage with Motown pipes as Sylvia, mother of a cute and rebellious Lorraine, who’s in love with the mayor’s son. Alexa Briana Crismon more than holds her own as Lorraine.
Director Steve Steiner, a musician earlier in his career, said production costs prohibited hiring a live orchestra, but that lack of one proved a good teaching tool for a cast of mostly emerging performers.
“Jeff and I taught the cast how to feel as if an orchestra is behind them and how to make sure that tracks were matching the show while being able to slow down or speed them up as needed during rehearsals,” he said.
Steiner said that song lyrics are original, but that arrangements are revamped for the show. For example, Steve Oremus wrote the arrangement of “Heartbreak Hotel,” originally written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton. Steiner said the denizens of the museum’s sculpture garden, who come to life, are in the original Broadway script and not an homage to the Pageant of the Masters next door, as some might suspect.
Some cast members are performing at the Playhouse for the first time, and some are still attending college, said Steiner. Ganser, for example, is a sophomore at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and Crismon, a senior at UC Irvine.
Steiner returns to the Playhouse after directing “Ring of Fire” and “The Buddy Holly Story” here. As founding director of Boebe Productions, he is also the show’s producer. His wife Gail Anderson is the firm’s production manager.
Playhouse artistic director Ann E. Wareham said that “All Shook Up” was the third Boebe summer production and that she’s already casting about for next year.
With summer in mid-swing, one can already look forward to what she’ll surprise us with then.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.
Through Aug. 7. Tickets $40-$75. 949 497-2787.
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