Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love

A glowing crimson heart adorns the front curtains of the June Havoc Theater, greeting audiences to the Abingdon Theater Company's new show, Elvis and Juliet. This clever visual aid, formed by two shining, carefully placed, and "gelled" spotlights, could also represent the combination of Fred Willard and David Rasche, two red-hot comedic talents who lend their brilliant timing and, yes, heart to Mary Willard's joke-heavy, plot-light script in this breezy production. The year is 1989, and newly engaged Yale seniors Juliet Jones and "Aaron" Lesley have spent their last month at college in a whirlwind courtship brought on by a mutual love of numbers and science. But before they can get married and take jobs in Washington, D.C., it's time to meet the parents. When Juliet starts asking direct questions about her fiancé's family, "Aaron" shamefully confesses that his first name is actually Elvis and that his father is a professional Elvis impersonator. Juliet, who we learn comes from Connecticut literary bluebloods, is surprised but agrees to come with Elvis to his parents' home in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, in the blue suede-furnished living room of the Lesley family mansion, patriarch Art (Fred Willard) and his wife Becky (a former exotic dancer) await their son's return from school. They are joined by daughter Lisa Marie (a vapid Madonna wannabe) and Art's brother Joey (David Rasche), who does a Rat Pack tribute act. Elvis's father is excited about his son's return from school, as he's booked them a gig at a hotel, where they'll appear as "Double Elvises."

Once the prodigal son and his intended appear, there's a clash of values, as the Lesleys fail to understand why their son wants to leave Las Vegas and become an economist. The clashes become more intense when the group travels to New Haven to meet Juliet's equally (but oppositely) offbeat family. Will Elvis and Juliet ever make it to the altar? When they do, will it be a little white church in New England or a drive-through chapel on the Strip?

Despite the titular homage to the tragic Shakespearean love story, there never seems to be any doubt that these two nerdy kids will make it. The script by Mary Willard (Fred's wife) presents only minor obstacles, mostly created out of bickering, that hardly seem insurmountable; one simply waits for the characters to talk themselves back into agreement. The story's structure seems more like a frame for larger-than-life characters and lots of jokes. They're good jokes, though, and a good cast has been assembled to tell them.

As the goofy young lovers, Haskell King (Elvis) and Lori Gardner (Juliet) are very endearing misfits who are both products of and completely different from their families. Willard plays Art as a misogynistic blue-collar guy who just happens to impersonate Elvis for a living, in a very subtle, straight-man performance. At the other end of the spectrum is Rasche, whose Uncle Joey lives like a member of the Rat Pack, using his booze-and-broads talk to mask the soul of a poet.

Christy McIntosh's Lisa Marie was the most over the top of the characters, but she sold the majority of her lines. (She was also the butt of the show's funniest joke; when the weight-obsessed Lisa Marie claims she is talented, Art responds that "dieting is not a talent.")

All of the actors have a way with comedy and portrayed very natural family dynamics, right down to the classic rhythms of arguing siblings. Director Yvonne Conybeare coaxed fine performances from her cast and made sure that no laugh was left behind. However, some of her staging was a bit too naturalistic and made for sloppy stage pictures. (While people in their living rooms don't think about upstaging each other, people on living room sets in theaters need to do so.)

During a long set change between the first and second scene in Act 1, the lighting designer employed motorized lights that swirled and changed colors and shapes in kaleidoscopic fashion. The audience laughed at this simple distraction from the heavy lifting going on behind the curtain. Elvis and Juliet definitely benefits from having colorful stars on display.

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