By Charles Calabrese
I didn't like Elvis Presley when he was alive and my opinion of him hasn't improved since his death in 1977. But that didn't stop me from enthusiastically enjoying the State Left Players of Lisbon production of "All Shook Up," with a book by Joe DiPietro and a score consisting of Elvis' greatest hits.
Director Kandace Cleland, musical director Jodine Pilmer and choreographer Ali Cleland have combined their talents with an energetic cast and an excellent on-stage band to bring to life the story of a guitar-slinging roustabout who challenges the stuffy standards of a small-town mayor and awakens the town to the wonders of love, romance and rock'n'roll. The result is a delightful mixture of "Footloose," "The Rainmaker," "Grease" and just about every movie Elvis ever made.
To his credit, Will Flannigan doesn't try to do a cheap Elvis imitation as Chad, the motorcycle-riding protagonist. Instead, Flannigan captures the essence of Elvis: the swagger, the pugnacity and the sometimes surprising vulnerability and humor that occasionally snuck out from behind the public image. He also has a great singing voice.
Ali Cleland is adorable as Natalie, the cute, tomboyish mechanic who falls for Chad the minute he asks her to fix his Harley. Cleland's lovely singing voice, her gift for physical comedy and her willingness to hide her stunning appearance and let herself look and act silly are perfect for this role. Natalie's comic attempt to seduce Chad will have you falling out of your seat laughing.
Kari Lankford demonstrates a strong-voiced affinity for pop music as Sylvia, owner of the local honky tonk. Lankford stops the show every time she belts out a classic Elvis song, alone or in an ensemble. She is well-matched by Bud Powell, who is making his Stage Left debut as Jim, Natalie's still-grieving, widowed father. Powell matches Lankford decibel for decibel when he sings, but he needs to project his spoken words better.
Sylvia and Jim's cranky, funny, love-hate relationship is a neat contrast to Natalie's unrequited love for Chad and the all-out teen romance of Sylvia's daughter Lorraine and the mayor's son, Dean. As Lorraine, Mackenzie Blaney's voice is as pretty as she is, but she needs to project it more when she sings. Dexter Witherow is quite funny as Dean, forced into military school, but craving for a normal life away from the school and his domineering mother, the mayor.
Nathan Kuhns is hilarious as Dennis, Natalie's nerdy best friend, who has a secret crush on Natalie. Bailey Bennett is a knockout singer and actress as Miss Sandra, owner and operator of the town museum, on whom every male in town, including Chad, has an unrequited crush. But she only has eyes for Ed, Chad's recently-acquired sidekick, who is really Natalie in disguise.
Patti Prichard L'Italien delivers a scene-stealing performance as the morals-crusading Mayor Matilda Hyde, determined to keep everyone in town from having any fun, especially her son. She is aided and abetted by the wonderful Michael Dempsey as the sniveling Sheriff Earl, who worships the quicksand on which she walks.
Cleland herself shines in cameos as the warden of the county jail from which Chad is released at the beginning of the show, and as hip town elder Morna, who, along with Sandy Huston as Ida, perform as impromptu backup singers for Dennis when he offers a comic rendition of "It Hurts Me." Courtney Stewart as Henrietta and Jen Powell as Bella also provide strong support.
The show benefits from a strong ensemble of townie teens, consisting of Caroline Bennett, Drew Bennett, Lake Bennett, Cody DeRamo, Allie Dolphin, Vivienne Fave, Christina Fonner, Logan Moff, Mariah Powell, Levi Ridgeway, Niki Slaven and Jacob Ward.
The stage band, consisting of Jodine Pilmer on keyboard, D.J. Depanicis on electric and acoustical guitars, Dan Kalosky on Bass and Stephen Ley on drums all deserve special praise. They provide fine musical support for the cast, with a professional and lively interpretation of the music.
"All Shook Up" will be presented again this Friday and Saturday and next Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and this Sunday and next Sunday at 2 p.m. Call for reservations at 330-831-7249. I give this fast-paced, wonderfully entertaining show my highest recommendation for all but the youngest family members, due to a few tastefully presented sexual innuendos. Don't be cruel to yourself and your family. See this show!
- Guest reviewer Charles Calabrese, a resident of Wintersville, Ohio, has been writing performing arts reviews for print and broadcast for more than 30 years.