Stomp and Shout an’ Work it All Out is about one of the strangest cases in FBI history. The story takes place between 1964 and 1966 – the two year span that it took for the FBI to decipher the lyrics to the popular rock ‘n’ roll song "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen. The lyrics presented a problem to government officials, who suspected that the screechy words might be obscene. Unfortunately, lead singer Jack Ely’s voice is too garbled to know for certain. If the lyrics are obscene, they would violate the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material act, subjecting the singers, producers and everyone involved with the song’s distribution to severe fines and prosecution. Playwright James Carmichael has created a play with several interesting layers. He has captured the feeling of restless uncertainty in an era when the nation was changing and teenagers were starting to realize that their country was more concerned with censoring their music than protecting them from war. Fortunately, there are also some memorable and relatable characters that elevate this play to something more than a timeline of history.
The acting is so real that at times the story feels more like a documentary. Carmichael has a clear sense of who his characters are and what has happened in their past to make them the way they are now. The production features a large ensemble of actors: parents, political figures, federal agents, hippies, teenagers, and other brief, but pivotal roles where various actors use their brief scenes to make a tremendous impact.
One such actor is Khris Lewin, who plays Marv Schlacter, a self-righteous producer that distributed the record. Lewin is an unmovable force, impossible for the FBI to ruffle. But, despite his obnoxious level of confidence, he is the hero of the scene. The FBI investigation is ridiculous, and he is one of the few people unafraid to say so.
Brian D. Coats also has a brief but story-defining moment portraying a down-on-his-luck songwriter, Richard Berry. Coats walks with a limp and slowly buttons a faded musician’s jacket, his movements telling a story of hard times and difficult circumstances.
At the heart of Stomp and Shout an’ Work it All Out is a quieter drama, a fading bond between a hardened father, Ray (Frank Rodriguez) and his feisty teenage daughter (Katrina Foy). Rodriguez plays Ray, the father torn between his duties to the FBI to investigate this song and his responsibilities at home as a single parent. Ray shows a softer side in the dark, smoke-filled interrogation rooms, suggesting that perhaps there is an empathetic human beneath that steel façade. His partner, Chris, (Jeremy Schwartz) tends to frighten his subjects into silence, whereas Ray’s gentle, understanding tone coaxes the information out of them.
It is hard to say whether Stomp and Shout an' Work It All Out is a comedy or a drama. The same elements of the story that make it humorous also make it horrifying. It is amazing to think that during one of the most politically charged times in history the FBI spent two years investigating the origins of a rock ‘n’ roll song.
The popularity of Louie Louie is often credited to its having a catchy rhythm rather than an important message. Fortunately, the same cannot be said about Stomp and Shout an’ Work It All Out. There is certainly a juicy background, as there always is when dealing with political intrigue, but the characters touch your heart, and, in the end, we are left with much more melody.
In 1966, the FBI officially closed the investigation into Louie Louie’s lyrics, concluding that the song is too unintelligible to interpret as obscene or otherwise. So what are those garbled words Jack Ely was screaming into the microphone the day he recorded the song? The world may never know.