REVIEW BY JAIME ZAHL OF LONG ISLAND ARTS SCENE
It’s “now or never” to catch the final three performances of “All Shook Up” at CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale. While the news on television may be bleak, this Elvis jukebox musical has the ability to transport even the gloomiest of souls into the nostalgia of neon lights, guitar riffs, and blue suede shoes.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night,” the musical follows a tomboy mechanic, Natalie (Jae Hughes), as her small town is “shook up” by the arrival of roustabout Chad. Played with the perfect balance of charm and self-awareness by Thomas H. Anderson, the Elvis figure slowly begins to charm the entire community, oppressed by the tyrannous Mayor Matilda Hyde who recently banned rock n’ roll and dancing. Mr. Anderson moves with the rock n’ roll icons famous swagger and successfully emulates his vocals with skill. Like all the actors on stage, he understands the level of campiness required to pull off this tongue-in-cheek musical.
As in Shakespeare’s play, the plot includes a complicated web of romantic desires. While Natalie crushes on Chad, her best friend – the nerdy, but endearing Dennis (Matthew Paredi) – tries to express his love for her to no avail. Meanwhile, Chad has his eyes set on the beautiful and sophisticated museum curator Miss Sandra, played by Gabrielle Farah. Although deflated, Natalie does not accept defeat and comes up with a plan to reel in Chad by following in “Twelfth Night’s” Viola’s shoes. Donning a leather jacket, a ridiculous hat, and an oil beard she takes on the persona of “Ed,” hoping to get closer to Chad as a male companion. Complications arise when Miss Sandra ends up falling for Ed.
Always a pleasure to see on the stage, Ms. Hughes displays a great deal of vulnerability as Natalie, but she is also given a chance to show off her comedic chops. Her rendition of “Fools Fall in Love” is both beautiful to the ears and a powerful display of emotion. Matthew Paredi is equally lovable as a nerd with a heart of gold. It’s hard not to root for him throughout the show and his Act II rendition of “It Hurts Me” is a testament to Paredi’s talent as a performer and CM staple.
With a group of less talented performers, it would be easy for one of the 10 leads to be forgotten at the end of the night. Fortunately, CM has assembled some of Long Island’s best. Each performer makes such a strong impression that I could devote a review to each of them. However, I’ll do my best to do them justice:
Miss Farah is delightfully melodramatic as the snarky and sensual Miss Sandra – dominating the stage in her number “Let Yourself Go.” Like Mr. Anderson, she hams up the campiness of her character with skillful comic timing and keeps her energy at 110 percent throughout.
Almost every of the member of the cast possesses an aptitude for both drama and comedy. One of the best examples of this is Shaina Stroh’s performance as Sylvia, a widowed mother and owner of a local dive. Her feelings for Natalie’s father Jim (Dennis Creighton) are palpable in each scene she shares with him and her performance of “There’s Always Me” is absolutely heartbreaking – justifiably met with a near standing ovation by the audience at its conclusion. However, she is also responsible for some of the best one-liners, doused in the perfect coating of ripping sarcasm. Meanwhile, Mr. Creighton also shows an endearing sensitivity as an also widowed single father. It was delightful to see him portray Ms. Hughes father yet again after their devastating performance as father and daughter in Smithtown Performing Arts Center’s “Fun Home” in 2018. Their chemistry lives on as they share many an emotional scene.
Jojo Minasi and Steffy Jolin also share tangible chemistry as Dean, the Mayor’s sheltered son fleeing from military school, and Lorraine, Sylvia’s wise beyond her year’s daughter. Despite the restrictions of a 1950s small town, where mixed race couples are seemingly forbidden – or at least severely frowned upon – the young couple carve out a romance inspired in part by Chad’s insistence on breaking the status quo. Although a revelation at the end of the musical slightly lessens the strength of their story, which I won’t divulge for the sake of spoilers, Mr. Minasi and Ms. Jolin defy such flaws in the musical’s book with their passionate and devoted performances.
And although Mayor Matilda Hyde is the villain of the musical, she is much more of a caricature of the conservative adults in the beach party era films of the 60s. Jennifer Demopoulos channels this energy with wonderful comedic instinct and a wonderfully campy “church lady” dialect. Her number in which she chastises Chad through song, “The Devil in Disguise,” can be a snooze in some productions, but Miss Demopoulous in conjunction with Ashley Nicastro’s inspired direction and choreography successfully creates a hilarious production number. Frank Ambrosini remains by Matilda’s side as a stoic Sheriff Earl throughout the show and not once breaks character. However, by the conclusion of the show the audience is applauding his sleeper performance when a certain truth is revealed. It’s clear that every actor on stage is having an incredible amount of fun with their characters, no matter how many lines of dialogue they are given.
As always, Ms. Nicastro has assembled a terrific ensemble who perfectly execute her challenging and exciting choreography filled with tricks and stunts. This ensemble in particular is made up of pure triple threats – belting out harmonies and reacting to every scene on stage with unyielding dedication to their craft.
The talent is also alive in Matthew Surico’s pit, where skilled musicians make Elvis Presley’s music come alive. I’ve said it before, but the addition of live music makes an incredible difference when it comes to the quality of local theatre and I commend CM and their musicians for remaining a glowing example. Carlos Dias’ sound design ensured accompaniment and the performances of the actors blended beautifully.
Behind the scenes, Ronald Green III once again creates a Broadway level aesthetic with his costuming and wigs. Patrick Grossman’s simple, but effective set provides just the amount of character to define small town America. Costuming, set, and direction united in a gorgeous display during “Let Yourself Go,” as the museum comes to life with famous paintings like “American Gothic” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Additionally, Alison Weinberg’s flawless lighting played an integral part in providing this musical with the rainbow of colors featured in each number.
While only three performances remain, I’d implore all theatre fans to rethink their Wednesday night or Friday/Saturday plans. “All Shook Up” should not be missed or overlooked as one of the best Long Island shows to come out of the new decade so far!
Tickets available at CM Performing Arts Center’s website