When Chad, the roustabout lead character of All Shook Up, comes roaring into “a square town, in the middle of a square state” on his motorcycle, the audience is taken on a thrill ride for the next two hours that includes 25 Elvis Presley hits. But make no mistake, this show is not about Elvis, it's a retelling of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night that sees mistaken identities, unrequited love, and even a group wedding.
Despite the town's alleged squareness, David Rockwell wasted no time in infusing the sets with whimsy and fun at every turn. “I was struck by how the show is about the journey of this town and of this guy on the motorcycle, so a lot of it is propelled by transportation,” Rockwell says. “So we wanted the set to be very cinematic and very much about movement.”
Since the proscenium opening of the Palace Theatre is relatively narrow compared to its height, the first thing Rockwell and his team did was create the illusion of the open Midwest. “The legs of the proscenium are actually lightboxes so you get a surround cyclorama feel that expands the vista of the show horizontally by getting those legs to light up,” he explains. “Then we have this rolling wheat field backdrop where we can constantly shift perspective.“
Despite the fact that the show is not about Elvis, the King's presence is certainly felt. From the gyrating appearance of the mysterious Chad, to the rocking songs, to the set pieces, Elvis may have left the building but he didn't go far. “All the buildings have a sway that suggest the sway and swagger of Elvis,” Rockwell says. “Each building is made up of a collage. The gas station is made of tires; Sylvia's bar is license plates and hubcaps; and the shoe store is made up of shoeboxes.” There is also the town church with an altar comprised of bibles and an organ berth created out of hymnals. Rockwell was inspired by Diane Arbus' classic black and white landscape photographs, mixed with Red Groome's pop culture sensibility of assembling collages.
Also, the set is constantly in motion, and is always shifting perspective from one building to another with miniature versions of each building that move across the background. “It's a very complicated show technically, far more complicated than anything I've done before,” Rockwell says. “At any one time the amount of pieces on stage create a sense of a lonely town brought to life by this musical idiom. So the audience ends up going on this journey that's transformed by music and sex, from the claustrophobic confines of a dingy roadside bar to cinematically opening up the whole space.”
All Shook Up is Rockwell's fifth foray into theatre and he relishes the chance to work with fellow designers LD Donald Holder and costumer David C. Woolard as well as director Christopher Ashley. “The more I work in theatre, the more I am impressed with the craft of the tech team,” he says. “This was a case where we challenged ourselves technically and I'm just thrilled with the results.”