Today, an interview with Barry Pearl, director of Studio C Performing Arts current production of All Shook Up, the jukebox musical celebrating the music of Elvis Presley. The show is concluding a brief two-weekend run at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center but has received praise from audiences and critics alike for its dazzling musicality and original choreography. Veteran actor/director Pearl is a regular in Ventura County theater, having worked with Cabrillo Music Theatre, Panic! Productions, and other organizations, most recently working with Studio C’s Kristi Reed on two recent shows: 13 and Camp Rock.
VCOS: How did you decide on doing All Shook Up?
BARRY: Kristi Reed called me and said she wanted me to come in and direct this piece and I said, yes, I’d love to because I did it at Musical Theatre West in 2008. I played the role of Jim Haller, the father, but it wasn’t my first exposure to the show. I saw it on Broadway when it was there, when Cheyenne Jackson was doing it. A friend of mine produced it, a fellow by the name of Jonathan Pollard, but back in 1967 and ’68, I was in Boston to do a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and my understudy was a guy named Jonathan Hadary, who went on to have a number of successes on Broadway, but there he was, playing the role of Jim Haller. So I called him and said, “Hey, ol’ buddy, couldn’t you throw me a bone or something?” The show was produced by Harvey Weinstein and Jonathan used to tell me stories about how Weinstein was just a maniac. But it’s a great show and you can’t go wrong with that music.
VCOS: Sure, but at this time, thanks to Mamma Mia, there were a glut of these jukebox musicals around, which I call “pop-sicals.”
BARRY: Popsicals? Oh, yes, yes, indeed.
VCOS: Because they’re sweet, they go down easy, but they melt fast.
BARRY: That’s true. There were two other jukebox musicals on Broadway at the time. One was Good Vibrations with the music of the Beach Boys and that didn’t do very well and neither did the other one, so this kind of got lumped in there and got overlooked at the Tonys and everything. But I think it deserved much more than what it got and I got some really nice reviews.
VCOS: What makes this show work?
BARRY: First of all, the music. You can’t go wrong with Elvis’ music. And the show is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, so you have this idea of a girl dressing up as a guy in order to win the favor of the hero, and of course, you have to suspend a lot of disbelief because the girl in no way comes across as being a rough, tough grease monkey, so you let it go because it’s fun and silly and you forgive them because of the wonderful music. Keenon Hooks’ choreography is just terrific and he’s a wonderful storyteller; he doesn’t choreograph for choreography’s sake. It really furthers the plot. But this cast is so terrific, they really allow for the audience to suspend their disbelief and it’s really just silly fun.
VCOS: How did Brent Ramirez fall into your lap. He seems to be the epitome of what this musical is all about – which is, the essence of Elvis Presley, not a parody or a caricature, but the bare bones physical and musical excitement Presley incited in his early days of the mid-1950s.
BARRY: Paul Panico, who plays Sheriff Earl and heads up Panic! Productions had worked with Brent before and he came to me and said, “I’ve got somebody who would be perfect for Chad,” and he came in to audition and we instantly looked at each other and said, “That’s the guy.” We were getting desperate to find the perfect Chad and he just fit the bill. That happened on a couple of other roles. Michael Brian, who plays Dean Hyde, was the last one that was cast. Someone had dropped out at the last minute and – boom – he filled that slot perfectly. Same with Regan Carrington. There was another gal who couldn’t do it and Regan came in and blew us away. That happens from time to time. So we got real lucky. And then we found Natalia Vivino – forget about it. It just doesn’t get any better than her. The fact that she was available was an amazing gift to us.
VCOS: This show falls into a Broadway category – one where a stranger comes to town and throws it into an uproar. You have The Music Man, Footloose, 110 In the Shade, they all deal with this theme. Is this accidental, or is there something deeper in our psyche or that of playwrights where they think about this kind of theme without thinking of it as being traditional?
BARRY: You’re absolutely right. It’s almost like it’s a deus ex machina, which is introduced at the very top of the show. The device doesn’t come at the end to resolve it, it happens at the beginning and concerns the resolver. I don’t know why that continues to appeal, but we could examine it and say that we are all looking for the messiah, to have all of our ills healed, because there are plenty of them. And this small town in the South in All Shook Up is depressed and gloomy and the people are looking for that ray of sunshine, a spark of hope. And it reveals itself and initially is not accepted, as the messiah Jesus was not accepted (although the Jesus story hasn’t ended just yet!). I’ve never really looked at it like this before but that’s probably how it manifests, where the society is looking for some being to come and take care of us and make everything right.
VCOS: I agree that it is probably subliminal – playwrights don’t go out and try to do a story about a messiah figure coming to town and solving our problems. But isn’t every western about that? We could go into this a lot more I guess, in film as well as theater.
BARRY: There must be something in our DNA.
VCOS: As a director, was there a particular person who mentored you in your transition from actor to director?
BARRY: I continue to follow Joel Zwick. Joel was an actor and I first came upon him back in the seventies in a show called Dance With Me, which was developed by Joel and Stu Silver. Stu came out here to write and produce – Joel, Scott Redmond, Annie Abbott, Greg Antonucci – he did Boardwalk Empire. Greg played a don in that show. So I was fascinated with Joel’s work years and years ago and he came out and directed Mork and Mindy, Full House and a whole bunch of TV shows. He directed me in a show called Hillary and Monica down at the Odyssey. He’s an actor’s director. He comes at it from that point of view, the way he deals with them with respect and humor. He and I never sat down and talked about directing, but just observing him and being directed by him has had a great influence on me. But not just him. I think there’s a piece of every good director I’ve worked with that has affected my own work.
VCOS: How hands on are you as a director?
BARRY: Quite a bit, although I do give a lot of breadth. I can go from one extreme to the other. I can see something and know that if you move your head to the left, you will get a laugh on this one word. I press those kinds of issues. Especially when it comes to comedy. I say to my actors, “Do not move while this actor is saying this line,” because we want the focus to be on that actor when he or she is talking. Don’t move a muscle, stop breathing. I go that far. And there is a bunch of that in All Shook Up, because it has those moments. If there is a joke that needs to land in a certain way, I will have my actors technically stand leaning to the left, so to speak, so the audience can look to the right. And it’s always amazing how it all comes together on opening night.
VCOS: Do you make adjustments after opening night?
BARRY: You bet. We have the luxury in this particular culture – the non-union culture – to take notes and go over them with the actors, although we do take into account union rules that require you not to give notes in a certain period right before a performance. I’m writing things down as I’m watching the show from the audience. Little adjustments, mostly technical things that need to be tweaked. I remember doing Grease and Tom Moore would come out on the road every couple of weeks and he would have reams of notes that he would give us. You have to keep the machine oiled. What I do is I put up a skeleton and then I see how the actors infuse that skeleton. I put up the initial construct that works as a guideline, a framework, or a template, and then they go to town.
VCOS: How do you work with your choreographers?
BARRY: With Keenon, I struck gold. I was directing Grease at Cabrillo and we were at a production meeting, and I was about to do 13 and Keenon was assistant choreographer on Memphis and I asked Lewis Wilkenfeld if he knew a choreographer and he said, “Why don’t you go in the other room and talk to Keenon.” I had cast Keenon in Happy Days and it was a match made in heaven. He continues the plot with his choreography in that when the character can’t express himself or herself through words, they do it through song. Well choreography does the same thing with movement. It must enhance and underscore and he has that craft down to a “T.” So I might ask him, “Can we bring these two characters down stage left? I need something to happen here.” And he’s always very accommodating. But I let him have complete free reign to get from point A to point B anyway he can. I’ve been in situations where my choreographer didn’t have a clue and was just putting in dancing for dancing’s sake. But when a song tells a specific story, characters have to be in certain places and have to do certain things that are even indicated in the script. Well, this particular choreographer didn’t consider any of those elements, so if that happens, I have to redo everything. I’m not a choreographer, I’m an actor who moves. So unless you have someone who really knows that craft, and is not just a dancer, but knows directing as well, and Keenon is that, you need to have both of those. I trust him implicitly.
VCOS: He also understands mid-50s dance and was really brilliant at imbuing Brent with the Elvis personal without making fun of Elvis or making it a parody.
BARRY: Indeed. This is our third collaboration and I would take him whene’er I go if I have the ability to bring in my own choreographer.
VCOS: Well, this is a really special “little” show, and when I say “little,” it’s not to denigrate it, but All Shook Up makes no grand statements, it’s simply a fun, entertaining slice of life that has morals but doesn’t hit you over the head with them.
BARRY: That’s absolutely correct. It is indeed a sweet little piece. This was the third piece I’ve done with Kristi. The first was 13 which was substantive. Camp Rock was much less so – a little piece of fluff. This one does make statements to live by – the discrimination between the races, which really speaks to me, for example, so I’m glad to promote non-discrimination.
VCOS: And you know, DiPietro, who wrote the show, also wrote Memphis some years later, which also has that message in it.
BARRY: You know, I never saw Memphis, but that’s his voice, which is tremendous. I’m glad he uses his craft the way he does.
VCOS: I only wish the show could have gone on for more than two weeks.
BARRY: Well, we’ll see. Kristi has it in the back of her head. The moment we finished casting it, she looked at me and said, “We’ve got to do something else with this,” so it very well could have a life beyond this. We’ll see.
All Shook Up concludes its run at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center this weekend. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.