Monday, 30 May 2011

Juke Box Jury

All Shook Up, Showbiz Queenstown
Memorial Hall, Queenstown
19 - 28 May, 2011

Does the world of entertainment really need another juke box musical, or have they become a dime a dozen? Your response to that question will determine your reaction to Showbiz Queenstown’s latest offering; All Shook Up.

Their marketing trumpeted, ‘The story’s all new; the songs are all Elvis’, which is wrong on both counts. The story is pretty much all Shakespeare – a haphazard mix of the more basic elements of Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Girl (Natalie) likes boy (Chad) but he likes someone (Miss Sandra) else so she dresses as boy to get his attention and he falls for her/him resulting in much confusion and hilarity. Subplots involve misdirected letters (in this case a Shakespearean sonnet), forbidden love, and discovering love that was beneath your nose the whole time. And it’s all set in 1950s bubblegum, small-town, Middle America without the racial tension; it really is all white here.

Elvis wrote very few of his own songs – in fact out of the 26 songs in the show, he only wrote two; Heartbreak Hotel and Don’t Be Cruel. Although they were all popularised by him, the fact that they were penned by others works in his favour. Musical arrangements by Stephen Oremus have transferred the numbers into something new and different, from the show-stopping Can’t Help Falling in Love in fabulous four-part harmony, to the spectacular Devil in Disguise as Mayor Matilda Hyde (Jo Blick) admonishes the hip swivelling roustabout Chad (James Stephenson) in a rocking country/gospel number, complete with angelic host and restrained demons.

Emily Burns as Natalie Haller (the female mechanic who attempts to fix Chad’s broken motorbike and then become his side-kick; trying to sidle her way into his affections) has a great vocal range, and her rendition of Love Me Tender in her deeper ‘male’ register is excellent. The singing is of a uniformly superb standard, and Julie Anne Molloy as Sylvia delivers the stand-out vocal performance with There’s Always Me, which blends emotion and technique to perfection.

A huge plaudit must go to the band (under the musical direction of Cheryl Collie), which performs on stage hidden behind a curtain for most of the show, and keeps the tempo cracking along. As is typical of this style of musical, the songs do nothing to further the action but they are entertaining – a couple behind me were playing ‘guess the song’, which with the standard of dialogue really wasn’t hard. At times the show drags a little as the songs are shoehorned into the script and, although the choreography (Tiffany Menzies) is excellent, the dancing is often lacklustre. Some of the best physicality came from Jim Haller (Chris MacKenzie) who displays some great wobbly legs and bad jelly shaking, as Chad teaches him to dance in yet another of the Footloose moments.

The minimalist nature of the set worked well, allowing for some interpretative staging. The moving statues were eye-catching (makeup by Ella Chaney), while the mimed bus in It’s Now or Never, and the Mayor’s ‘car on roller-skates’ (‘driven’ by the comically taciturn Sheriff Earl – Paul Halsted) drew appreciative applause from audience. The space (and even bare stage at times) should afford the characters room to develop, but there is nowhere for them to go.

Nowhere is this more evident than the story of Dean (Samuel Farr) and Lorraine (Nicole Graham). The role of the buttoned-up conformist aching to break free is perfect for the meerkat-like Sam, and Lorraine has a great and powerful voice with a hint of country grunt, but the story under-sells their talents. Half-way through Act One they have already paired up to the disapproval of their parents, and that’s pretty much it.

In the original, Lorraine is African-American, which adds a whole new dimension to the Mayor’s reluctance for her son, Dean, to form a mixed race relationship – remember the Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed for another ten years. She is more than just a snob, as she is portrayed here; she has serious issues to consider. When Lorraine, Dean and Chad sing If I Can Dream (with lyrics such as 'If I can dream of a better land, where all my brothers walk hand in hand, tell me why oh why oh why can't my dream come true?') the Martin Luther King echoes would be deafening. 

The racial aspect also tempers Jim's feeling for her mother, Sylvia - he has so far overlooked her for romance although he is happy enough with friendship. Director Bryan Aitken has had to work around this (presumably due to the performers who presented at auditions) which he does very smoothly, although the absence of this tension leaves the musical a touch flat.

The character of Chad is equally one dimensional. He rides into town to touch the juke box (positioned on the side of the stage throughout) to make it play, and he infects the town with music and passion. And then what? James Stephenson struggles with the role; trying to make a shallow, image-obsessed philistine seem appealing to a gaggle of women is no mean feat, and he over-uses hand gestures to declare emphasis. He finds some subtlety with the duet You’ve Got to Follow That Dream; sung with Natalie, this is touching and inspiring duet on the first night, but it turned into a Showbiz Idol sing-off later in the season.

His rival, Dennis (Caleb Dawson-Swale) has delightful timing when he focuses, and his geeky, twitching nervousness belies a soulful centre. Although vocally a little weak, he proves his acting ability with a completely different role from last year’s (equally competent) the Artful Dodger in Oliver! Miss Sandra (Caroline Pegna) delivers the songs that suit her range well (One Night With You and Hound Dog do; Let Yourself Go patently doesn’t). She has the best line of the show – “You marry your cousins don’t you?” – and is the only character other than Natalie who is permitted any development. Her conversion to prim museum curator to flirtatious seductress is obvious but well executed.

One further bouquet must go to Emma Newell who designed the programme to look like a record (half of the cast have probably never seen one before). This sets the scene before the first chord is strummed. It’s a fun, bright, rollicking, toe-tapping, dispensable, candy-floss show; unimaginative and not particularly demanding for actors and viewers alike, although the singing can be challenging. It features a predominantly young cast and will probably be a favourite among high schools. It’s child’s play and boy, do they have fun at play-time!

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