In the wake of the success of “Mamma Mia” in 2001, a tidal wave of “jukebox musicals” came on the scene. Based on the catalogs of rock-era icons, they included hits like “Jersey Boys” (the Four Seasons) and “Movin’ Out” (Billy Joel).
One that got lost in the mix was the 2005 Elvis Presley musical “All Shook Up,” playwright Joe DiPietro’s (“Memphis”) first Broadway effort. By that time, Broadway had been overrun by the genre and “All Shook Up” played for just a few months.
Since then, thanks to its innovative song selection from Presley’s deep catalog and an unpretentious, lighthearted story, the show has garnered new respect on the regional scene. It is being produced by Studio C Performing Arts in a brief two-weekend run at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center that closes Nov. 5.
Director Barry Pearl clearly recognized the show’s unique combination of heart and energy and has delivered a near-perfect cast, led by an astounding, charismatic performance by Brent Ramirez as Chad, a guitar-playing ex-con.
Arriving in a small hamlet to get his motorcycle repaired, Chad up-ends the repressive policies (a la “Footloose”) of the local mayor, Matilda Hyde, played with characteristic relish by the fabulous Farley Cardena, who is intent on enforcing the “Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act.”
Ramirez is Presley personified: the sleek ’50s Elvis, leather jacketed with a curled snarl and pelvic thrusts that jar anyone standing in his immediate vicinity. Ramirez’s Chad is no caricature, but more symbolic of the Elvis mystique without becoming a parody.
The breezy fun of “All Shook Up” is that it doesn’t take itself seriously and resists sinking to the tawdry camp of “Mamma Mia.” The threadbare story focuses on a succession of lust-at-first-sight encounters between residents of the town (all signaled by a character’s brief belting of Presley’s “One Night”) and how the romantic pairings play out.
The grease monkey who gets to work on Chad’s chopper is tomboy Natalie Haller (Natalia Vivino), who instantly falls in love with the roustabout, unaware that her clean-cut best friend Dennis (Andrew Allen, adept at playing fresh-faced good guys) harbors a secret crush on her.
Vivino possesses one of the more spectacular voices in Ventura County and gives an adorable, winning performance as she attempts to get close to Chad by dressing up as a bikeriding tough named Ed. When Chad falls for the local museum curator, elegant, statuesque Miss Sandra (a sultry Michelle Ann Owens), who in turn falls for Natalie/Ed, it sets up an entanglement of who-will-end-up-with-whom that defies prediction.
As in DiPietro’s “Memphis” the show incorporates the topic of interracial dating, between Lorraine (dancing/singing whiz Zoë Reed), the black daughter of honky-tonk owner Sylvia (a terrific Regan Carrington), and Mayor Hyde’s militaryacademy bound son, Dean (engagingly played by Michael Brian).
Solid performances are also turned in by Scott Strauss as Natalie’s garage-owning father and Paul Panico as the taciturn Sheriff Earl.
All of this remains secondary to the score, which includes rousing versions of more than two dozen songs that fit neatly into their respective plot-forwarding positions.
Featured are familiar Elvis favorites (“Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog”) as well as a number of surprisingly refreshing obscurities from Presley’s film career, including “C’mon Everybody” (“Viva Las Vegas”), “Let Yourself Go” (“Speedway”) and “A Little Less Conversation” (“Live a Little, Love a Little”).
The production is highlighted by the scintillating, innovative choreography of Keenon Hooks and Cassie Silva, along with complementary lighting design by Lauren Wemischner and a crack, top-o’-the-proscenium rock combo led by Jeff Gibson.
“All Shook Up” concludes its run Nov. 5 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For tickets, visit simi-arts.org.