Eric Gilliom’s one-man show is a return to the kind of exhaustive, immersive dramatic performances that marked his early emergence as a theatrical wunderkind. As anyone who payed notice to Maui theater in the 1980’s and 90’s can tell you, Gilliom was a standout, a go-for-broke showman with undeniable charisma, energy and talent. Embodying roles as diverse as Hamlet or Dr. Frank N’ Furter, his presence and talent were hard to miss. Over the past twenty years or so, Gilliom re-emerged as a powerhouse musician, as either one part of Barefoot Natives with Willie K, the head of the Island Rumors Band or just onstage by himself. However, Gilliom’s latest project, titled “White Hawaiian,” currently playing at the McCoy Studio Theater, is less a musical and more of an actor’s tour de force. Simply put, it’s another career high, deserving of a national tour or, at the very least, an extended run locally. It’s that good.
Sharply written by Gilliom and Brian Kohne (collaborators on Barefoot Natives and the film “Get A Job”), “White Hawaiian” is a tour through Hawaii’s change from the time of monarchy to a tourist haven, a history of Gilliom’s family and how they flourished in Hawaii and a performance piece in which Gilliom recalls his highs and lows of being Maui’s premiere theater actor. Using vintage clips to present both the passing of time and to establish mood and location, the show begins with Gilliom playing a distant member on his family tree (a loquacious boxer with big eyebrows). With each scene, we learn more of how each character is a family member with vivid, colorful qualities and personal history. Playing his own grandmother, Gilliom leans in with farce but finds genuine truth and beauty in the role. He does this with each figure that emerges from the briskly staged vignettes. By the time he emerges as himself, the show takes a wild turn.
Those unfamiliar with Gilliom’s astonishing career trajectory may expect a self-congratulatory note at this point but Gilliom’s performance (and the show overall) never goes there. Instead, with true performance finesse, we see recreations of his humbling, notorious Broadway premiere (too good to spoil here), as well as his bizarre job as an entertainer on a cruise line. These sequences are explosively funny on their own, more than enough to make this a must-see. However, the same can be said of the tender rendition of Olomana’s “Ku’u Home O Kahalu’u” and Gilliom’s full-bodied, hearty and moving take on his father, Lloyd. As hilarious and elaborate as this show gets, the best scenes involve the elder and younger Gilliom bonding during sandblasting. Overall, for all the personal obstacles and career touchstones that are covered here, “White Hawaiian” is a son’s tribute to his father and the legacy he left him.
“White Hawaiian” is about (as a wise man once said), the times, they are a changing, and how we change with them. Gilliom’s one-man show isn’t an ego trip or even a celebration of what he accomplished but a loving declaration of what life and family have taught him through the highs and lows of a remarkable career. It’s one of the most enjoyable evenings of theater I’ve had in some time.
White Hawaiian is playing tonight, 7:30PM, one final performance, in the McCoy Studio Theater within the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Tickets are available at mauiarts.org or by calling 808-242-SHOW (7469).