IF YOU GO
What: Jukebox musical about a drifter and a dreary Midwestern town using the songs of Elvis
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through July 29
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
Something else: The downtown parking garage fills up quickly. Plan to arrive early or be prepared to hunt for on-the-street parking.
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — The Naples Players lit a fire under Elvis jukebox musical "All Shook Up" Friday night. Backed by an athletic corps of dancers, Chris Valente and Alana Marie Neuman sing, dance and belt songs of "The King." If the show doesn't exactly satisfy, it certainly entertains. There's even a thrill or three.
Audiences should view "All Shook Up" as a rock concert, even if it isn't exactly staged as one. Ignore the nonsensical plot and most of the plainly baffling set design and creative choices. Concentrate on the fantastic voices, the brilliant music and jump-to-your-feet and dance along choreography, because when it rocks out - "All Shook Up" is fantastic.
"All Shook Up," written (if you can call it that) by Joe DiPietro, combines the basic plot of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" with 25 Elvis Presley hits. A stranger comes to a nondescript 1950s town, incites a tangle of love, everybody sings a lot and it all works out in the end. The show lasted 213 performances on Broadway in 2005.
As entertainment, the show often soars. The wide and deep Elvis catalog yields up nostalgia-inducing hits like "Love Me Tender," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," Carl Perkins-penned "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Don't Be Cruel" as well as the title song. Music director Charles Fornara revs up a 12-piece orchestra like he's conducting at the Hollywood Bowl - and the voices sound amazing. They're way better than the cast recording - don't let that one that put you off.
Many of the best moments in the show come during the ensemble numbers. While Elvis poured his velvety Southern voice into the ballads, "All Shook Up" thunders away with dozens of voices - lifting the crowd out of their seats with song. Imagine "Jailhouse Rock" slammed out with a chain gang of chorus boys, or "Blue Suede Shoes" rocking down Main Street? Even softer "Can't Help Falling in Love" raises the roof. If you see a crowd on stage - get ready for something special.
Valente (Chad), in his first Naples Players musical, swivels his hips, rolls his shoulders, winks and hits everything in sight with a ladykiller gaze. He delivers the goods - especially on "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel." Neuman (Natalie) belts "A Little Less Conversation" with the best of them - a cleverly staged number that makes use of a trio of curvy, vampy backup dancers (Alyssa Haney, Danielle M. Krawczeski and Lauren Redeker).
Elsewhere, James Giordano (fresh off a year at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York), delivers a soaring, plaintive take on ballad "It Hurts Me." His coming timing and acting skills help the show tremendously. Noah Samotin (Dean) and Johanne Nordilus (Lorraine) pair nicely as star-crossed lovers singing "I Can Dream." Theirs is - unfortunately - some of the only real chemistry in a show built on unrequited love. Their vocal skills are some of the best in the show - especially newcomer Nordilus. Her big, powerful voice fills the theater.
Beyond a trite book that does little other than see the characters mouth words to serve as an awkward bridge between songs, there are other problems with the basic show itself. Some of the arrangements simply don't work ("The Power of Love" as a bizarre trio, an interesting, if odd quartet mashup of "Hound Dog" and "Teddy Bear"). The band can also blast the singers - as good as they are - off the stage at times.
Director Dallas Dunnagan feels out of her element with the bright, poppy show. There seems to be at multiple creative forces warring for dominance between the set, the costumes and the design. The resulting melange does nothing but distract from the talented performers.
The show constantly wobbles back and forth between playing "All Shook Up" for its comedic, over-the-top elements and trying to anchor the story in reality. The confusion often plays out on stage - with some actors going broad (Joyce Austin's big-voiced diva Sylvia) and other more subtle.
The ever-reliable Laura Needle vamps in a fabulous green print dress and saves some of the show's weakest scenes. Yet, not even she can rescue the bizarre "Let Yourself Go" which features - I kid you not - a garden of Roman statuary (the ensemble in white tights, togas and masks) come to life. It's a "see-it-to-believe-it" moment.
I love Ellen Cooper's smarmy take on her tough-talking, high-minded, moral majority-esque Mayor Matilda. Her prim, proper pink and white trim suit, complete with cat eye glasses resemble one of Dot Auchmoody's major success stories. Cooper grasps the need to squint, pucker and preach as if she's pounding a pulpit. It's the perfect role for her.
Here again though, Dunnagan anchors the character in reality - instead of encouraging the actress to play the role for all the comedy she can. Matilda is an over-the-top satire - not a real person; witness the huge laughs when Cooper grabs her guitar and rocks out to "Devil in Disguise" backed by a band of angels.
Matt Flynn's scenic design suffers from a similar schizophrenia. A gorgeous weathered two-story theme park (kudos to the painters) offers a stunning backdrop, as does a smart set for Sylvia's Bar. Yet, the town's tilted streetscape seems lifted from a Warner Brothers cartoon. This impression gets reinforced when Mayor Matilda rolls onstage in a literal "Flinstones" pedal car. Cheap laughs, yes, but a disconcerting image that feels completely at odds with the rest of the show.
A cartoonish Trailways bus is accompanied by a genuine bicycle, another visual disconnect. When Nordilus pedals onstage, racing after her departing beau, she looks for all the world like Margaret Hamilton caught up in a tornado. Valente arrives on a motorbike with real wheels and handlebars - but a wooden "engine."
Instead of real musical instruments (guitars, trombones), the cast uses painted slabs of wood - a curious choice for a rock 'n roll show. Yet, real, functional props show up from time to time - bottles, wrenches, flashlights - leading to permanent identity disorder. The constant visual incongruity makes it difficult to concentrate on the soaring voices and sprightly feet.
Giant records painted on the stage floor add another layer of graphic clutter. Although the show openly desires to be a rock concert (at the expense of storytelling), the lighting feels underwhelming - where's the color, flash and sizzle?. I love the whiff of atmospheric fog though - and wish there were more during the nighttime scenes at the abandoned amusement park.
Choreographer Dawn Lebrecht Fornara makes the most of a coltish - almost preternaturally juvenile - cast that's far younger than many audiences may be used to seeing on the Naples Players stage. Her energetic choreography gives a good sense of the show's rhythm, bounce and thumping groove.
Rollicking "Jailhouse Rock," with boys in black and white jailhouse shirts that show their abs and girls in striped minidresses, opens the show with a bang. Guitar battle "Devil in Disguise," with chorus girls as red-horned devils and pink frocked angels led by Valente and Cooper, delights as the groups war back and forth across the stage. Carol Smith's wigs and hair accessories, plus Auchmoody's costumes make this scene sizzle.
Second-half opener "All Shook Up" and finale "Burning Love" will delight. Keep an eye out for magnetic dance captains Jacob Carbary and Lauren Raleigh - they're the bounciest, sauciest members of the ensemble.
Yet, there is the hint that in Dunnagan's drive to fill the stage with fresh faces, she gave Lebrecht Fornara the unanticipated problem of traffic control. Some of the razzle-dazzle that delights older audiences comes simply by having a big cast moving well; a few of the numbers are so eye-poppingly busy that the overall pattern gets lost, as well as any sharpness to the choreography.
Even the big Sugden stage feels cramped at times. This leaves the choreography that truly is spectacular (flying toe touches, spinning leaps) to feel muted just because the motion gets lost in a haze of bodies.
"All Shook Up" contains a lot to like, even to "burning love." Neuman brings grace, charm and a smashing voice to her part. Valente has sex appeal to spare. There's a fantastic band, great moves and of course, the music of the peanut butter and banana sandwich-eating King himself! The packaging might be more reminiscent of Vegas Elvis than vintage Elvis - but the show offers up an amazingly fun, if lightweight, night of entertainment.