‘Burnin’ Love’ celebrates its first anniversary
LAHAINA – There is an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When I saw “Burnin’ Love” last year, the talent of Darren Lee, the star of this show, impressed me. Mr. Lee isn’t an Elvis impersonator, although he looks and sounds enough like the King to be his doppelganger. Mr. Lee is an artist, who, along with General Manager Rick Dunaj and Chris Coaley, have created a tribute show to the King that is reverential, accurate, astonishing and thoroughly entertaining. When it comes to performing arts, what that saying does is enshrine repetitiveness that ultimately sucks the life out of a performance, no matter how good it is.
“Burnin’ Love” is most definitely the exception to the clich. Darren Lee and his visionary executive producer, Mike Kattawar, have gone under the hood of “Burnin’ Love,” their Ferrari, and come out with a Buggati Veyron. For those of you whom this metaphor is too mechanical, it’s as if they had a great dish but found a new sauce that transformed it and made it even better.
The show is based on Elvis’ relationship with Hawaii, which began in 1957 and culminated in 1973; in between, he did three films here and one other concert. Mr. Lee takes the audience on an unforgettable musical and visual journey that is like no other Elvis show, because it is specifically by, for and about Hawaii.
Over about 90 minutes, Mr. Lee performs 30 songs from “Blue Suede Shoes” to a stirring rendition of “All My Trials.” Accompanied by a terrific band and dancers, Lee makes seven costume changes! The band, marvelous singer Felicity Raugust and newsreel footage of Elvis’ visits to Hawaii cover the changes. It’s so much fun to see and hear impresario and radio personality Tom Moffat in 1957, the 1960s and early ’70s.
“Burnin’ Love” 2015 is tighter; the production values remain exceptionally high. Sebastian Landreau, sound designer, has created perfect audio balance, and what is new in the show is so exciting.
By 1968, the King’s throne was shaky; his movies did not do well, and he hadn’t performed live since the Pearl Harbor concert in 1961. The “British Invasion” and the Summer of Love conspired to make him irrelevant. However, his career and throne were regained by the first one-man show in the history of American commercial television. Not even Frank Sinatra had attempted to hold court solo on television.
In early December 1968, the show aired on NBC featuring an intimate view of the King, dressed in black leather, strumming an acoustic guitar and surrounded by his original band and good friends. A relaxed, fit, impossibly handsome Elvis played inspiringly, joked with the audience and sang with a maturity that revitalized his career.
Lee recreates a segment of this concert. While the Maui Theater is not as intimate as the NBC studio, nor was the nearly full house as small as the audience at that historic concert, Lee successfully captures the feeling of that remarkable concert.
On folding chairs, surrounded by his band, Aaron Fulton (drums); Halemanu (lead guitar, subbing for regular guitarist Steve Norton); Music Director, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Dayan Kai; and Dave Graber (bass), with lighting that shrinks the stage thanks to the talents of Lighting Designer Nick Nelson, we feel like we are watching a private jam session. I particularly loved Kai keeping time on a guitar case.
Lee sings “It’s Now or Never,” “One Night with You,” “Love My Baby,” then he stands to do a rocking version of Ray Charles’ “What I Say” with the audience, and closed the segment with “Hey Bossa Nova.”
Lee genuinely loves what he does. Throughout the show, he comes into the audience and shakes hands. He doesn’t confine himself to the front rows either – he roams throughout the theater meeting and greeting while he sings. He picks out one of the most senior members of the audience and sings “Love Me Tender” to her. What an unforgettable moment for her and for the rest of the audience who share it with her vicariously.
Wearing a replica of the Alfred Shaheen aloha shirt made famous in “Blue Hawaii,” Lee picked out a lovely lass from the audience to hold the microphone as he sat on the edge of the stage strumming a ukulele and singing “The Hawaiian Love Song.” Upon returning her to her seat, he informed her escort, “She’ll be going home with you, but she’ll be thinking of me.” It was another light and warm moment filled with them throughout the evening.
A portion of each ticket price is donated to the Maui Food Bank. Lee informed the audience that since the show opened, the Maui Food Bank had received the equivalent of 100,000 meals from the shows’ proceeds.
After a year and more than 200 performances, “Burnin’ Love” is just as fresh as it was when it opened. But it is tighter, and the new segment has done the impossible: improved on perfection!
“Burnin’ Love” plays at the Maui Theater in Lahaina on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Beginning Feb. 2, the start time will change from 8 to 7:30 p.m., with check in at 7 instead of 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at www.burnnlove.com. Don’t miss it!