I wasn't looking forward to seeing Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love. On the surface, the Caldwell's decision to house the production seemed like the most awesomely cynical move imaginable, coolly calculated to pacify the antediluvian nostalgia junkies who pay the theater's bills. I thought the show would be theatrical comfort food, schlock-shit on a stick.
You understand, don't you? The repackaging of real culture as kitsch is always offensive but becomes doubly odious when the King gets involved. If you've ever read Albert Goldman's poison-pen Presley bio, then you know how vulnerable dead Elvis can be. Everywhere you turn, Elvis is turned into a cartoon redneck ignoramus, a bad joke that never figured out his own punch line.
That would be okay if we were talking about Pat Boone or some other mere performer, but Elvis was never that. He was a tabernacle, a repository of the nation's deepest feelings and most hidden desires he stood for the good life, for the promise that you can rise from nothing and become everything; that you can free your libido, wear your heart on your sleeve, be generous, be crazy, be rebellious, be more famous than anybody has ever been, and still be a good Baptist boy who loves his mama and the president. Turning him into a cartoon is to laugh at that promise; laughing at that promise is to laugh at America itself.
Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love
Caldwell Theatre, 7873 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton; 561-241-7432
Through December 17. Directed by Kurt Stamm. Written by Jack Lewin, Will Friedwald, and Jay Leonhart. Starring Kelly King, Ryan Link, and Tom LoShiavo.
But I was dead wrong about Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love. Hunka insults nothing and is never embarrassed by its own affectionate treatment of its subject. It is pitch-perfect and more fun than any nostalgia trip has the right to be in fact it doesn't feel like nostalgia at all.
Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love is not an impersonation show, like Chris MacDonald's, nor does it attempt to tell a story with Elvis's music, as All Shook Up is slated to do at the Broward Center this week. The program notes call it a "celebration" of Elvis's music, but I'm not sure what that means. Let's call it a concert.
It looks and sounds like a concert, anyway you've got three singers backed by a rockin', no-frills five-piece; everybody uses real names; and the singers address the audience directly. This is a pretty good working definition of a "rock and roll concert"; the only parts of the production that smack of theater are the little biographical details the singers keep offering about Elvis's life, often in the middle of songs. This is frustrating especially the talk over "Mystery Train" but it's a minor gripe, because the music is so good.
The arrangements by Tedd Firth and John Oddo are smart and full. Sometimes it's difficult to wrap your head around the fact that these noises are being made by only five musicians, especially on "Can't Help Falling in Love."
For the most part, though, the quintet stays in the background: This is a singers' show. Ryan Link, who is either a high baritone or a low tenor, has a great big voice that takes awhile to warm. The night I went, I don't think it really opened up until the middle of "Suspicion," but from then on, it was a goddamn force of nature. Link made the G-sharp at the end of "It's Now or Never" sound casual. Tenor Tom LoShiavo doesn't deal in high-note pyrotechnics, but he's got serious interpretive muscle, bending his welterweight croon in unerringly faithful service to El's Fifties gutbucket growlers and coming on like a genuine hillbilly cat. LoShiavo also has a sour-pucker puss that is, for my money, the most lip-smackingly sexy thing on any Florida stage today.
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The boys are impressive, but the big surprises all come from Kelly King, a versatile mezzo with a crazy habit of stopping Hunka Hunka in its tracks. The first time she does this, it's with a lounge-lizard, torch-song treatment of "Don't Be Cruel." Strictly speaking, this should not be possible: In rearranging "Don't Be Cruel," Firth is fucking with some mighty powerful ghosts, and in a rational world, he'd be publicly flogged for even considering such a thing. But King vindicates him, singing like a cool blue breeze with the kind of perfect, hang-your-hat-on-it rhythmic phrasing you're supposed to hear only at the Village Vanguard.
This happens over and over again, until at last King turns all ordinary rules of taste and propriety on their collective ear, delivering a barely whispered, deeply affecting rendition of "In the Ghetto." Now, everybody who's ever heard that song knows it's supposed to be kitsch the only person left out of the loop was Mr. Presley, who sang like it had the power to redeem the very tragedy it documented. Kelly King appears to have taken Presley at his word. If her "In the Ghetto" doesn't redeem the ghetto itself, it at least redeems the luminous sincerity Elvis brought to the tune every time he performed it.
If there's a quibble to be had with Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love, it's that nobody in the audience sings along with the finale. As Link plucks soft arpeggios on a guitar, the three voices come together in a bluegrass-tinged "Love Me Tender," and it's a still, delicate moment. In spite of the guitar, the song feels a cappella, like music for a candlelight vigil. It seems to demand a sing-along some holy, spontaneous expression of spectator/performer unity. I tried coming in on the second verse, but some old biddy whacked me with an umbrella.
Here's another complaint some folks might make, though I don't think it's fair: The interpretations in Hunka won't really put anybody in mind of Elvis. Rather, Presley is to be found in the singularly odd fact that a show like this one can exist in the first place. It's in the way so many of the songs come on like kind-hearted jokes, happily taking the piss out of the whole affair, before King pulls out that breathtakingly sincere "In the Ghetto." You think, What the hell? I've just been moved to tears by had a genuine emotional experience with a piece of absolute, trivial, cheese-ball garbage! It's not a fair complaint, because that's the heart and soul of the Elvis Experience itself.