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The Arts

The King is dead, long live the Kings!

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/3/2011 (2210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Any time a local playwright's work is dramaturged, workshopped, finessed and funded to the point that it makes it into a mainstage season, there's reason for a whole hunka' celebration.

On Thursday at Prairie Theatre Exchange, the world première of Sharon Bajer's long-in-development Burnin' Love was a fun-filled evening that saw the theatre community showering Bajer with congratulations.

Richard Waugh, left, and Zachary Stevenson let their hips do the talking.

BRUCE MONK PHOTO

Richard Waugh, left, and Zachary Stevenson let their hips do the talking.

The hopeful comedy/drama about personal and family healing, set in 1979, is a mother-daughter/absent-father story that's also a sendup and tribute to the immortal Elvis.

It centres on Tina (Miriam Smith), a hardbitten nurse whose rebellious teenage daughter, Mary (Chelsea Rankin, rather too old for the part), has been in a coma for a year. Tina thinks it's time to "unplug" Mary, but wants to find the father who never knew his daughter and let him pull the plug.

Tina starts to open up over mai tais in a tacky Edmonton tiki bar to an "icon of cheese" -- a has-been Elvis impersonator. She has no idea that in a limbo between life and death, Mary is gleaning quiet wisdom from the real Elvis, who has regained his lanky 1950s beauty as a sort of spiritual guide.

Under director Bob Metcalfe, the four-actor play works well as a goofy crowd-pleaser. And heck, that's all right, Mama, particularly in the much-stronger second act, when the paunchy fake Elvis enters his own coma and meets his prototype in purgatory.

Faux Elvis mistakes the King for an impersonator and tries to give him pointers. Real Elvis serves a heavenly peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. By the time they start gyrating through choreographed duets -- and some of the comedy set up in Act I gets cashed in for riotous laughs -- everybody in the whole cellblock is along for the ride.

The "Elvi" are the endearing heart, soul and pelvis of Burnin' Love. As the stubby-beer-swilling impersonator, Richard Waugh has a buffoonish Dan Aykroyd quality. He shows real humanity, too, and actually has better moves than Zachary Stevenson as Real Elvis.

Stevenson brings a lovely voice and guitar work and a laconic dignity to his young, silver-suited King, though his jailbird's cap is so wrong, it nearly wrecks Jailhouse Rock.

In flashbacks he also plays Wade, the 1950s dreamer who has a forbidden romance with Tina (he's Mormon, she's Menno). In that role he's a sexy colt who lights up the stage with frisky energy.

The narrative's frequent shifting in time and location is effective for the most part, but may leave some viewers mentally scrambling.

A costume change would help to visually transport Tina to the SSRq50s for flashbacks. But Smith stays in her nurse uniform and doesn't do enough as an actor to make her supposedly rapturously in love SSRq50s Tina distinct from her stiff, painkiller-addicted, bulimic 1979 Tina.

If Smith's presence throughout the two-plus hours were a wave pattern on the life-support machine in Mary's room, it would practically flatline compared with Waugh's and Stevenson's.

It's difficult to address the play's less successful elements without disclosing a spoiler. But when you think back on the first act -- which takes too long to get to the meat of the encounter -- there are several implausibilities.

Bajer perhaps tries to do too much -- goofy comedy, complicated story structure, musical numbers and earnest ideas about making things right in our lives. The last category ends up shortchanged, though there's a nice metaphor in trying to extend one finger out of our paralysis of regret and pain, and tell someone we love them tender.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

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