PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: All Shook Up: The King Plays The Palace

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: All Shook Up: The King Plays The Palace
 
Finally—on March 24—and posthumously, The King played the Palace, and the place rocked with the music made famous by Elvis Presley. There even seemed to be a little storyline running in and out of the 25 songs, crocheted densely in place by writer Joe DiPietro and directed with gusto by Christopher Ashley. Long live The King, indeed!
DiPietro;  Ashley; Tommy Hilfiger; Brian Stokes Mitchell;  Roberson; Mario Cantone; Stephen Oremus; Brian Dennehy; Mario Vasquez;  Gambatese &  Jackson; Nikki M. James;  Korey; Michael Benjamin Washington & Matthew Morris; Gary Griffin & Sergio Trujilla
DiPietro; Ashley; Tommy Hilfiger; Brian Stokes Mitchell; Roberson; Mario Cantone; Stephen Oremus; Brian Dennehy; Mario Vasquez; Gambatese & Jackson; Nikki M. James; Korey; Michael Benjamin Washington & Matthew Morris; Gary Griffin & Sergio Trujilla Photo by Aubrey Reuben

As opening nights go, this one brought out some unexpected celebs—designer Tommy Hilfinger and record mogul Clive Davis, for starters—but there was your Brian Stokes Mitchells and your Phyllis Newmans. Fresh from her hugely successful "Nothin' Like a Dame" benefit, Newman was scaling herself down for a bit in this Monday night benefit, the 20th anniversary performance of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Music Box. "I play the mother. I haven't decided yet whether she's Jewish or Katharine Hepburn."

Not that the show could stand up to much fact-checking, but Presley's Boswell, Pamela Clarke Keogh, swept into the Palace with authority. Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend is the title of her biography. "It's a great night for Elvis fans," she said. "I'm very much looking forward to it."

Charles Randolph Wright, who's reached prominence as a writer (of Blue) and has been pursuing it as a director (starting with the Maurice Hines tour of Guys and Dolls), was an early arrival. "I'm directing a piece for Roger Rees's first summer at Williamstown that is amazing," he said. "I'm not supposed to say what it is right now—he'll kill me—but it'll probably have the last slot at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in August. I'm juggling my schedule right now. My first film as a director is coming out this summer, too, called On the One. Ken Roberson, who choreographed All Shook Up, choreographed my movie, and just about everybody in New York is in it—Novella Nelson, Eartha Kitt, Patti LaBelle, Tim Reid, Ben Vereen. It's about twin brothers—one is a rap star in Los Angeles, the other is a minister in Harlem—and they hate each other. It's a musical."

Working his black locks, Mario Cantone did a dead-on Elvis imitation for the TV cameras on his way into the Palace, and at the party he was heaping praise on all hands involved. "I loved it. You know what's so funny? It's so much better than a show like this kind of show should be. That starts with Chris Ashley. It doesn't take itself seriously. Stephen Oremus's musical arrangements are phenomenal. Sharon Wilkins, that boy Mark Price, great! Where is that hooker? I've been looking for him all night."

Laugh Whore, Cantone's uproarious one-man show earlier this season at the Cort, was caught by the Showtime cameras, and will air May 28. "They tried to cut it to an hour and couldn't. It'll be 90 minutes," down 30 from the Broadway version. He just wrapped his next feature film, Retirement, with Peter Falk, Rip Torn and George Segal. "Taylor Negron and I play a gay `Thelma and Louise' couple, and we got to write all of my own story. Big reach." Dirty Blonde's Claudia Shear came with her new husband—a Harry—and, like that song from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he had refinement. "I'll have to check that song out," she said. John Ellison Conlee, who played the Harry in the recent Encores! reprise of Tree, made the opening as well. Shear said she had two irons in the fire at the moment: "I'm writing a screenplay for Revolution Studios which Darren Starr (of "Sex and the City") is directing, and I just had a meeting with Jim Nicola about doing a new play at New York Theatre Workshop" where she arrived [Blown Sideway Through Life].

Retired studio chief Sherry Lansing was another surprise attendee, a friend of the court. "Bernie and Barney [producers Kukoff and Rosenzweig] are two of my closest and oldest friends. I've known them since I was in my 20s. I came here to cheer them on and I had a great time. I was on my feet. I wanted to dance. I thought the cast was extraordinary. This is the best show. It'll run forever."

This was one of the few showbiz forays Lansing has allowed herself since her exit from the top. "I'm actually really involved in nonprofit work so I don't have any plans to do any movies, ever," she said. "I wanted to set up my own foundation, and I did, and I'm doing work in cancer research. When I turned 60, I decided that's what I wanted to do. I love the movie business—and, of course, if there's a movie some day I'm passionate about, I'll do it—but right now I'm devoting myself to public service and giving back."

Rosenzweig's wife, actress Sharon Gless ("Cagney and Lacey," "Queer as Folk"), was resplendant in rhinestones—a string belt from which dangled the letters E L V I S against an all-black ensemble. When Brian Dennehy (London-bound April 2 with his Death of a Salesman) complimented her on her outfit, she replied, "We got money in the show," and meaning not just her husband either. "This is the first time I've invested in a play," she said. "All opening nights should be this good. It's very loving." Her husband nodded and recalled the show's underattended wintery reception at Chicago's Cadillac Palace. "That was scary," he said. "It was an old movie house, a real barn, not a good legitimate house."

But the center of most of the photo-flashing was that famously former "American Idol," Mario Vasquez. "It's my first Broadway opening," he gushed, "and then I heard the party's at the Copa. Oh, my God!" Did he exit "Idol" for Broadway? "I'm not going to confirm anything. You have to keep your options open. As a New Yorker, you can't be stupid and be close-minded. You gotta be open to everything. Broadway is something I've thought about before. It's something I'm thinking about now, too. You never know."

Cheyenne Jackson, the understudy who stepped up to the Presley plate when producers and Jarrod Emick couldn't agree on a fee, was similarly "overwhelmed" by the opening-night chaos at the Copacabana on West 34th Street. His parents who brought him up on Elvis records, will be seeing Their Son, The Broadway Star next month.

On the long and bumpy road to Broadway, Jackson's peroxided blond locks turned Elvis jet-black—a cosmetic change that the actor "most definitely" appreciated, thank you very much—while Curtis Holbrook's dark brown hair went blond. The latter plays the mayor's upstart military-school son, and it was thought that lightening his hair would contrast better with his African-American love interest (Nikki M. James). "It was actually our costume designer [David C. Woolard] who suggested that change," said Holbrook. "I think that's what makes our show so strong. They could have just thrown together Elvis songs with a story and it could have been fine—people would have enjoyed it, whatever—but every single person is so passionate about their job that they went the distance to fine-tune every little thing. The sets! If you go up on stage, on the gas station there's a bus schedule with times of departures and arrivals. Those kinds of things create a world and make the whole show that much stronger. That's why it works so well."

As the Shelley Fabares facsimile to Jackson's surrogate Elvis, Jenn Gambatese said her tomboy part went though "lots of little changes" getting to the Palace, but that was okay with her. "Chris and Joe and everyone involved have been so adaptable, which is what you really have to be if you're changing things every day. What I've found since Chicago is that my character has a lot more edge. I feel fiercer. I feel like a tough guy."

She didn't look so tough—in fact, downright girlish in her Betsy Johnson party-dress, a refreshing switch from the grease-monkey garb she dons in the play to pal around with Jackson. There was, she admitted, plenty of smiling and crying at the curtain call. "It has been such a long process—many, many months now of very hard work—so it was very emotional. It's fun tonight, but I think it would be more fun if we weren't all so tired."

Veteran character actor John Jellison, who has the almost mute role of the lady mayor's sheriff sidekick, does not have an easy time of it. "It's a challenge, actually—well, to keep concentration," he admitted, "so I get down there early for all the cues and take it very seriously." When he finally speaks, it almost comes as a shock to the audience. "That particular moment in the show solves a whole host of problems for the play so I do take some comfort in that, in that my speech starts a chain of events that ties up the plot."

"This was the best opening night I've ever had," trilled the hilarious Alix Korey, who has a dandy time (and "Jailhouse Rock") as the oppressively repressive mayor trying to impose her Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act on her small-town citizens. "Chris Ashley is the best, and the cast is a frighteningly loving group of people. No divas! Chris was so helpful to me. He let me try a lot of things and always steered me in the right direction."

The third seasoned vet in the show, Jonathan Hadary, plays the heroine's dad—a widower who turns into a late-blooming lothario with a particular weakness for the two ladies who plainly have the best pipes on the premises—Leah Hocking, as a curvaceous museum curator, and Sharon Wilkins, as the proprietress of the local good-eats.

Despite his years of service on the stage, this is the first time that Hadary has ever played the Palace. "I auditioned there once," he said, "and got the job" (a tour of The Grand Tour). "The Palace is a beautiful, beautiful house to play. It was worth the wait."

Record producer Bill Rosenfield, the original cast recording buff's best friend, was in from his new London digs on a dual mission: "I'm doing the albums for this and for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," he beamed with his eternal-boyish enthusiasm. "The release date for All Shook Up is May 18. It's a very quick turnaround. I'll be doing that Sony BMG and Spelling Bee, which will be even faster, for Ghostlight's Sh-K Records. That one will be recorded April 5 and should be ready by the end of April.

Matthew Morrison, late of Hairspray and now of The Light in the Piazza, and Michael Benjamin Washington, the flitty maid in the new La Cage aux Folles, joined the festivities after their respective shows closed, chatting it up like chums at the bar—and never mind they could wind up competing in the same Tony category at season's end. Morrison was the last addition to the Piazza—he plays the young Italian smitten with a curiously child-like American woman—and he found waiting for him a new song from Adam Guettel. He spelled it: "Il Mondo Vuoto" ("The World Is Empty"). Interesting sidebar: The show's title page in Playbill lists Roberson's choreography below "Additional Choreography by Sergio Trujilla." Can this be a theatrical first? One can only wait to see how the Tony nominating committee addresses this bizarre billing.

At the table marked for him, Trujilla found himself in very good company indeed, as befits a choreographer star-on-the-rise: on the left, his discoverer, choreographer Jerry Mitchell; on the right, director Gary Griffin, who used his dances in the "Encores!" of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Now, Trujilla has lined up like dominos: The Mambo Kings and Jersey Girls for Broadway and Christine Baranski's Mame at the Kennedy Center.

Griffin's next project is another "Encores!"—The Apple Tree, which will grow at City Center May 12-15 with Kristin Chenoweth. "We'll know the other two [cast members] in a couple of days," promised Griffin. Next show will be the Chicago wunderkind's first for Broadway: The Color Purple with LaChanze, who's currently filling the title role of Dessa Rose, the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical that bowed this week at Lincoln Center. "Again, the rest of the cast we'll know soon. We're trying to nail down what theatre we'll be at, and, once that's decided, we'll know all the schedule. I'm thrilled about it. First of all, it's a great story, and I think this music team has come up with an amazing idea for how to tell it musically. It was so born to be a musical."

Adriane Lenox, who appeared in the Atlanta world-premiere of The Color Purple and is currently delivering a Tony-baiting performance in Doubt at the Walter Kerr, was at the party in her official, off-stage role of wife. Her husband, Zane Mark, did the dance music arrangements for All Shook Up. "He also did the dance music arrangements for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," she trumpeted, "so he's represented twice this season."

As is the outrageously inventive set designer, David Rockwell—for the same two shows.

One of the country's foremost architects, Rockwell was recently recruited for Broadway (by Ashley, actually, for The Rocky Horror Show), subsequently putting an animated sheen to Hairspray and solving the big physical dramatic problem of Omnium Gatherum, an Off-Broadway opus in which a chi-chi dinner party goes straight to Hell. As you can readily deduce from the evidence, sets that move and dance wittily are a specialty with him.

"I fell in love with theatre when I was six at community theatre in Deal, NJ, where my mom was a choreographer," Rockwell confessed, adding for the unoriented, "Deal is near Ashbury Park, which inspired tonight's second-act set—the dilapidated fairground.

"My first Broadway show was Fiddler on the Roof, at age 10. I was so struck by the way transitions in theatre emotionally involve you so, yes, I love the idea of sets dancing with people." He'll hang up his dancing shoes and slide rule for a brief but well-earned vacation, then he'll get busy designing a theatre to house Phantom of the Opera in Vegas and another for Hairspray. There's also a possibility of reteaming with the South Park guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with whom he teamed last year for Team America.

"What I'm looking for is a chance to collaborate with really interesting people. That's what thrills me about theatre. Architecture, my day job, is about being an auteur. Theatre is about collaborating." Asked what he thought Norman Rockwell might have accomplished on Broadway, had he been inclined (or allowed) to kick up his heels in theatre, he responded with assurance: "Uncle Norman would have just rocked the house."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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