Young cast brings great energy to Talent Machine's 'All Shook Up'

Isaac Simonaire (as Chad), left, and Billy Luzier (as Dennis) perform during the Talent Machine Company’'s production of “"All Shook Up.”"
Isaac Simonaire (as Chad), left, and Billy Luzier (as Dennis) perform during the Talent Machine Company’'s production of “"All Shook Up.”" (Photo for The Baltimore Sun by Bud Johnson)

Dissed by major critics at its March 2005 Broadway debut, Joe DiPietro's jukebox Elvis Presley musical "All Shook Up" now qualifies as a hit in Annapolis.

The Talent Machine Company cast has energy and youthful enthusiasm combined with vocal and dancing skills to create a show brimming with vitality at St. John's College's Key Auditorium.

Invited to choose a show for her Talent Machine Company directorial debut, Vicki Sussman suggested "All Shook Up" for "its great Elvis music, its terrific vocal and dance arrangements, and for the wonderful characters who have great heart," she said. Having directed teen shows for more than 32 years, Sussman appreciates the wholehearted dedication that Talent Machine's teen cast brings to every show.

Musical director Dennis Blair gets harmonious sound from his chorus and fine performances from soloists.

Choreographer Vicki Smith creates spectacular dances that her thoroughly rehearsed dancers perfectly execute. Smith brings authenticity and nostalgic perfection to the numbers, seemingly bringing to life the original "Buddy Deane Show" dancers.

Loosely based on Shakespeare's "As You Like It," this Elvis salute is reminiscent of "Footloose" in its story of motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing Chad arriving in a quiet 1950s town where the subdued inhabitants express little animation. Their puritanical mayor having outlawed most forms of fun, the residents long for the good times of the past.

Chad's arrival soon stirs up the townsfolk into new longings. Local mechanic Natalie falls for Chad, as do most of the other girls in town. Nerdy Dennis, who loves Natalie, becomes the object of museum curator Miss Sandra's desires. She, in turn, is pursued by Chad and also by Natalie's father, Jim.

Widower Jim is admired by sassy bar owner Sylvia, whose daughter Lorraine finds love with Dean, the son of Mayor Matilda Hyde. Further complicating matters, Natalie decides she can win Chad's affection by pretending to be his buddy Ed. Later, as Ed, she is pursued by Miss Sandra, who finds Ed irresistible.

As tangled as the plot might be, it doesn't trip up the young cast. And although a concert of two dozen Elvis hits may have only minor plot relevance, every song has entertainment value.

More like a concert than a conventional musical, "All Shook Up" is a feast of nonstop singing and dancing by this rocking teen cast.

The 10-member cast and 17 supporting players contribute to a rollicking production. Mariel White, 16, has the pipes and presence to be convincing as business owner Sylvia. Severna Park High sophomore Evan Bradley-Lewis is equally convincing as middle-age Jim Haller, who transforms his image as he searches for a new life.

As leading character Chad, Isaac Simonaire nails the important opening number, "Jailhouse Rock." Without attempting a slavish imitation, Simonaire evokes Presley, handling the vocals smoothly and swiveling his hips to the girls' delighted squeals. Simonaire shows a flair for comedy when he discovers that he is attracted to his "male" sidekick Ed.

Handling the double roles of tomboy auto mechanic Natalie and Ed, triply talented Tabitha Thornhill shines doubly in acting, singing and dancing.

Seeing a Thornhill stand out is nothing new at TMC productions.

One bonus of years of attendance at Talent Machine shows is observing talent dynasties like the Thornhill family. In a July 2000 production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," I was impressed by 17-year-old Jake Thornhill's Pharaoh, whose dance gyrations went beyond anything Elvis could have matched in his heyday. At age 14 Samantha Thornhill played Dorothy Brock in Talent Machine's "42nd Street." Later, 16-year-old Hannah Thornhill lit up 2nd Star's stage as Lola in "Damn Yankees" before creating a spectacular version of Velma Kelly in last season's "Chicago" at Annapolis Summer Garden. Now Bowie High senior Tabitha Thornhill caps her Talent Machine career this season.

Family ties are at TMC's roots. In 1987, teacher, director and choreographer Bobbi Smith created the original Talent Machine show and founded the company with the goal of developing youngsters' dancing and singing talents and providing a professional vehicle for them. Upon Smith's death at age 60 in January 2001, her daughter, Lea Capps, and sister, Vicki Smith, decided to continue TMC's mission of identifying and nurturing young talent, which they have showcased in their high-energy productions over the past decade.

This family tradition is worth celebrating by Annapolis theatergoers, who will find professional-caliber performances delivered by young, energetic casts.

Talent Machine's "All Shook Up" continues at St. John's College's Key Auditorium through Sunday, Aug. 12. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $10 for children age 7 and under. They may be ordered online at talentmachine.com or purchased at the performance.

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