All Shook Up, the new all-Elvis tuner that is currently rocking the Palace Theatre, mixes The Bard with The Guitared — and the emphasis, you'd better believe it, is on the latter.
The Presley people had approached playwright Joe DiPietro (whose I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is still going strong Off-Broadway at 3,500-plus performances), tossed at him the complete canon of songs that Elvis recorded in his 23-year career and told him to run with that as a Broadway musical.
There was only one restriction: "They asked me not to do an Elvis bio" — which was jim-dandy with DiPietro. "I don't know if I'd have been interested in that, quite frankly. They said, 'Do what you want to, then show us the script.' If they didn't like what I did, they'd have said no, and that would have been that, but I did a reading, and they said yes."
The notion of funneling the legend of Elvis through the comedies of Shakespeare occurred to DiPietro quickly, and rather logically, after he'd splashed about a bit in the tuneful treasure trove he had just been handed. "I knew the show had to be a romantic comedy because all the songs are about 'I love you' or 'I don't love you.' They were all some variation on that theme, so I thought, 'How do you mix that up?' and it came to me that Shakespeare's comedies, with their mistaken identities, seemed to do that really well. "Certainly, the music is very much like the pixie dust in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the sense that it's the magical element that makes people open to love and passion and possibility. That's just what happens here when the music comes to town, and that was the very specific image that I had in writing the show and picking the songs to go with it."
(This magic is well-marked in All Shook Up: every time the love bug bites, whoever the smitten bitten is breaks into a lusty, full-throttled rendition of "One Night With You.")
The music comes to town, à la The Wild One, on a motorcycle and in a black leather jacket.
A surly, sexy stranger who listens to his own drummer, Chad has an unsettling effect on the repressed, susceptible citizens of this sleepy little burg, shaking it to its foundations, setting off an orgy of mismatched pairings. Chad goes for the town's chilly museum curator, Miss Sandra, who in turn only has eyes for Ed (who is actually our heroine, Natalie, a tomboyish mechanic disguised as a guy so she can hang with Chad).
"It's every Shakespeare comedy melded into every Elvis movie," DiPietro says. "There's something about the fun of Elvis' plots I tried to capture. I didn't take anything specific from those films, just their general spirit. A film like "Viva Las Vegas" is giddy good fun."
Christopher Ashley, a director who delights in broad-stroke comedy, thinks the welcome mat is out for this show. "I love, at this moment in time, doing a show about the fifties when questions of civil rights and race roles and decency seem to be fresh again in 2005."
The two dozen or so songs assembled for the show were hand-picked by DiPietro, Ashley and the show's music director and arranger, Stephen Oremus. "We made a point of picking songs that are going to further the plot and develop the characters and glue our show together," Oremus explains. "We really did it as a very collaborative effort, each of us suggesting songs, so we wound up with a pretty terrific selection of material."
Of course, Oremus had to rethink, rearrange and redistribute the numbers through different characters, couplings and contexts. "It's going to be exciting for audiences — or at least it has been so far — to rediscover the songs done other than the way Elvis did them."
The specific time frame of the show — 1955 — kept choreographer Ken Roberson on track, although it initially chafed him. "At first," he says, "I told Joe to write up a joke that said, 'I need five more years,' but the great thing is that we kept it in '55, and that kept me away from The Twist and The Jerk and The Monkey and all those steps that came along in the sixties.
"What I wanted to do was to honor the kind of iconic steps that Elvis did at that time."
And swivel-hipping in the center ring is a 29-year-old Idaho unknown whose real name is something Elvis could have been called in films: Cheyenne Jackson ("My parents were hippies, and there was a western TV series with Clint Walker that my dad loved").
He first signed up as Jarrod Emick's understudy; but when Emick left the production, he became The King — "a dream come true," he says. "I love Elvis music. My parents are big fans, too — pictures of Elvis on the wall, that sort of thing. We didn't listen to Christmas music when I was growing up. We listened to Elvis's 'Blue Christmas.'
"Of all the shows I've auditioned for, I wanted this most — first of all, just because of the Elvis aspect of it, and, secondly, since I haven't been here long in New York, to originate a part on Broadway allows me to bring so much of my own experience and appreciation of Elvis into play — omigosh! — it's one of those things where you have to say, 'Pinch me!'"