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Elvis songs make stirring 'Shook'

The Baltimore Sun

The spirit of Elvis Presley is hovering over Toby's Dinner Theatre this summer as a lively cast performs All Shook Up.

Running through Aug. 24, the musical uses 25 of Elvis' songs to tell the story of a stagnant town that is, as the title says, all shook up by the emergence of rock music in the 1950s.

A drifter with a motorcycle and a guitar - his name is Chad - has been arrested for violating something called the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act, which bans such affronts to morality as public necking and tight pants.

His offense: riling up the local women with his music and pelvic gyrations. Backed up by the other prisoners, he gives a spirited performance of - you guessed it - "Jailhouse Rock."

The scene changes to another town, just as dull as the first. The girls find the local boys boring, the boys prefer a centerfold of Marilyn Monroe to the local girls. The mayor, a prim middle-age woman, is determined to keep the young people in that harmless state.

Then Chad, sprung from jail, rides into town and changes everything.

To Joe DiPietro, who wrote the show, the music of Elvis Presley symbolizes many of the social trends that arose in the 1950s and 1960s - the increasing freedom, power and influence of young people; the loosening of inhibitions in dress and behavior; the integration of the races. All of these are reflected in his story.

The songs include "Heartbreak Hotel," "Roustabout," Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Can't Help Falling in Love" and, of course, "All Shook Up."

As Chad, David Jennings' campy performance perfectly matches DiPietro's campy story. Chad is not meant to be Elvis, and Jennings makes no effort to imitate him. With fine singing, dancing and acting, he makes the part his own.

Andrew Horn and Genevieve Williams give sympathetic portrayals of two of the town's mature residents: Jim, who runs the gas station, and Sylvia, owner of the cafe where the residents hang out. Williams' galvanizing performance of "There's Always Me" is a highlight of Act II.

Jim's daughter, Natalie, is a mechanic who lives in greasy dungarees. Lauren Spencer-Harris gives her a perky charm, and remains convincing even when Natalie, hoping to get closer to Chad, poses as a boy called "Ed."

David James brings his usual talent and ability to the role of Natalie's nerdy admirer, Dennis.

Mayor Matilda Hyde never makes a public appearance without backup: the brawny, closed-mouthed Sheriff Earl. Lynne R. Sigler gives the mayor the proper smug confidence. Daniel L. McDonald, as Earl, is a pillar of mute support until the final scene, when he astonishes the mayor and the audience.

Shaunte Tabb and Jeffrey Shankle bring the charm of youth to the show's star-crossed lovers, the mayor's son, Dean, and the cafe owner's daughter, Lorraine.

As Miss Sandra, tour guide at the local art museum, Tamarin K. Lawler morphs impressively from a cool intellectual into a sexy intellectual.

The plot seems simple and familiar at first but soon develops into a series of shifting romantic triangles (Dennis, Chad and Natalie; Chad, Jim, and Sandra; Sandra, Chad and "Ed," and on and on).

At the end, DiPietro neatly pairs everyone off. Some of his couples might not have been likely 50 years ago, but the modern audience at Toby's accepted them cheerfully.

Costume designers Janine Gulisano-Sunday and Lawrence B. Munsey treat the audience to a dazzling spectacle in one of the museum scenes. A half-dozen actors are transformed into strikingly effective statues: Mercury, complete with winged helmet and feet; a grouping of the Three Graces; an Egyptian pharaoh; Rodin's The Thinker, and Degas' The Little Dancer.

Also worth attention are the walls around the theater, where scenic artist Richard Montgomery has created charming suggestions of the 1950s scene - a bus terminal, a roller coaster and a service station.

"Service station" - that's a term we don't hear much these days. Americans might have been inhibited before rock music came to liberate them, but they did get service with their gasoline.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "All Shook Up" through Aug. 24. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information: 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.

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