The hits are all ELVIS, shouts the strapline, and the story is all new. Well, newish. Fifteen years since its first US airing. And Will Shakespeare is responsible for some of the ideas and the odd line of dialogue.
Indubitably a juke box musical – the box in question stands proudly in front of the Act Drop. And Shenfield’s big bold production, directed by David Street, sits very well on the Hornchurch stage – the wide open spaces, the gas station, the County Jail and especially the abandoned fairground. The transition to star cloth in the Museum Garden is particularly effective.
The large chorus is very much a strength of the show: singing, dancing and filling the stage with 50s frocks. They are often imaginatively employed: the angels and demons number, the Zippo swaying moment for the reprise of Can’t Help Falling in Love, and of course the bus queue maracas ... Impressive stand-out performances from within the ensemble, too, like the trio that kicks off Heartbreak Hotel, or the Blue Suede sextet.
Roustabout rebel Chad is in the safe hands of Allister Smith, swivelling his hips, curling his lip, and taking a leading part in bringing all the King’s greatest hits to dramatic life. At his best, perhaps, when wrestling with his feelings in I Don’t Want To. His sidekick and later love interest is grease monkey Natalie – a sparky, likeable performance from Joanna Hunt – who becomes not Cesario but Ed to get close to her idol. A lovely Fools Fall in Love from her, just before all’s well that ends well and the wedding walk-down. Natalie’s dad, who has heartaches of his own, is winningly portrayed, dramatically and vocally, by Robert Phillips. The MD is Ben Summers, leading his invisible twelve-piece pit band from keyboards.
Though it sometimes looks as if it might tackle some big themes about life, love and identity, this is not a show to be taken too seriously. And maybe the whole thing could have been sent a little further up, its tongue a little more firmly in its cheek. The One Night With You running gag, though well supported by the lighting plot, never really comes off.
There are many excellent comedy performances however. Louise Byrne’s Miss Sandra vamping it up in Let Yourself Go. Kerry Cooke’s Mayor in Devil in Disguise. And Jamie Fudge, superb as the nerdy Dennis, a richly detailed comic character who also manages to touch our hearts. Kate Smith as Sylvia, too, has excellent comic timing, and some of the best lines; she uses her vocal talents effectively in her big number, There’s Always Me.
Another period favourite next from Shenfield Operatic – a child-free Bugsy Malone at the Queen’s this June.