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Jukebox musical hits high notes

While sitting through – and mostly enjoying – the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s “All Shook Up,” several questions kept running through my head:

How can this summer stock theater attract so much outstanding talent so consistently?

And who, exactly, ever imagined that it would be a good idea to combine Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” with the greatest hits of Elvis?

Let’s address the first question, because, judging by the overwhelmingly positive crowd reaction, it renders the second question moot. The CDA Summer Theatre is a nationally recognized summer stock theater, and as such, it attracts national class talent from all over the country.

In this show, Exhibit A is Dane Stokinger, a Seattle-based actor who plays Chad, the Elvis-like roustabout who blows into Nowheresville, USA, in 1955. With every swivel of the hip, he causes mass hysteria – and I mean amongst the audience, too. Exhibit B is Deidra Grace, an actress and singer from Miami and, lately, New York, who came across like a young Aretha Franklin, belting out such numbers as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “There’s Always Me.”

Another actor, Cheyenne Jackson, illustrates this point, too, although in absentia. Jackson created the role of Chad on Broadway and helped make “All Shook Up” a Broadway success. Not long before that, he was a young local actor wowing audiences at the CDA Summer Theatre. The point is, at this theater, national talent flows both ways.

Even more impressive is the national-class stagecraft and show-biz savvy that brings all of this talent together in a polished, high-powered and utterly professional production. Every number is loaded with energy, and a few, like the reprise of “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” would wake the dead. We have director Roger Welch, with his reliable theatrical instincts and decades of experience, to thank for that.

However, in this case, all of that talent is put to the service of what I can only describe as a daring, yet strange, concept. Playwright Joe DiPietro has lifted some of the main comic-romantic themes of “Twelfth Night” – a girl masquerading as a boy, a triple-marriage finale – and used them as vehicles for delivering songs like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Some songs are a little easier to fit in – “Love Me Tender” and “It’s Now or Never” – but still, the whole idea ends up being exactly as bizarre as it sounds. Add a tacked-on theme of racial togetherness, complete with picket signs, and you have an odd mixture of the Bard and the Fonz.

It didn’t work for me, but even I have to admit that it affected my enjoyment of the show surprisingly little. That’s because “All Shook Up,” is essentially a jukebox musical, meaning it’s strictly an excuse to perform a lot of hit songs that everybody already knows and loves. Even if the excuse is sometimes lame – “Hey, are those blue suede shoes you’re wearing?” – it hardly matters. We still get to hear the song.

Chad, wearing a motorcycle jacket and sideburns, is clearly the show’s Elvis figure, but his singing style is more Ricky Nelson. This is less of a problem than you might think, because, first, Ricky was no slouch, and second, most of these 20-plus Elvis hits are sung by somebody else. For instance, Sylvia the bartender takes the lead on “Hound Dog” and Natalie, the town’s female grease monkey, handles “C’mon Everybody” and “A Little Less Conversation.”

And handles them quite well, I might add. Krystle Armstrong, a Seattle actress, plays Natalie with a bouncing ponytail and an infectious smile, dimmed only slightly by the fact that she has to pretend to be a boy for the entire second half. As in most versions of “Twelfth Night,” only the dimmest of bulbs (Chad) could fail to notice that this “boy” is, quite clearly, a hot chick.

Far more importantly, this version of “All Shook Up” delivers the songs with consistent, unflagging energy and musicianship. The 11-piece orchestra, under the direction of Chris Tompkins, delivered blasts of rockabilly, gospel, R&B and good old rock ‘n’ roll from the pit.

My reservations about this show were put in perspective as we were walking out the door. A lady behind me exclaimed, with feeling, “It just makes you want to get up and dance!”

I turned around. She was 82 if she was a day.

“All Shook Up” continues through June 21. Call (800) 4-CDATIX.


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