'Wrap Your Heart Around It' masters tales, talent and the accordion

You may never think of polka — or the accordion — in the same way again. And don't forget to bring a box of tissues. In her one-woman show, "Wrap Your Heart Around It," at the Falcon Theatre, accordion player, polka music superstar and five-time Grammy nominee LynnMarie Rink has a story to tell. And she's telling it with rare and eloquent honesty.

With her director, theater veteran and solo artist Michael Kearns, and backed by top-notch pro musicians — Paul Cartwright (fiddle), Joey Ayoub (bass), Chris Steele (percussion), Nashville guitarist and the show's music director Paul Carrol Binkley — Rink draws audiences into a life of challenge, success, heartbreak and redemption. Not incidentally, this talented artist also proves that accordion-fueled polka rhythms can be downright irresistible.

The show begins when Rink picks up "the box": a gleaming accordion with crimson red bellows that has been placed center stage on a draped ottoman like a jewel in a display window. Rink, blond, petite and youthful in jeans, informs us that she has been playing since age 11. She favors the button accordion, she says, rather than the piano-keyboard-style preferred by her father — bar owner, band leader, the life of the party, volatile alcoholic and "a man you could love and hate in the same second." His destructive legacy will provide the framework for Rink's autobiographical journey.

Rink then hops onto the set's raised bandstand to perform the Who's "Mama's Got a Squeezebox," singing the salty lyrics in a big musical voice, stepping lively in cowboy boots, the fingers of her right hand flying over the accordion's multiple rows of buttons.

It's a jaunty prelude to a story about a woman's struggle with depression and stunted sense of self, rooted in a childhood damaged by "fear and secrets." (Rink's unspoken job when little was to remove the evidence of her father's morning after: the empty beer bottles and cigarette butts.) Rink's struggle is magnified tenfold when she gives birth to a special-needs child.

Leavened by the music that has been her path to success and her salvation, Rink's story is both an expertly staged theater piece and riveting in its yes-I said-that-out-loud honesty. Confident and nuanced as an actor, Rink covers her family's Eastern European cultural roots, her apparent conversion as a "born again" Christian, her uneasy but enduring marriage, her bouts of severe depression and, most profoundly, the evolution of her relationship with her son, who has Down syndrome.

The play progresses from Rink's small childhood home that she shared with five siblings, a self-effacing mother and unreliable father; to her college dorm, a therapist's couch, a visit to Rink's ethnic roots in Slovenia, the home she shares now with husband Jim and son James, and the doctor's office where Rink heard the news about her baby.

Set designer Jeff McLaughlin's bandstand, multiple gauzy draperies, vintage furniture pieces, seating options and multiple table lamps, floor lamps, hanging lamps and one crystal chandelier — lighting designer Luke Moyer uses the ambient glow to good effect — nicely accommodates the show's numerous scene shifts.

An earlier version of Rink's show was named "Best Production of 2012" at New York's United Solo Theatre Festival. Rink worked with Kearns, co-artistic director of Skylight Theatre Company, to shape her show's first full theatrical run at the Falcon. Its appeal lies not only in Rink's ability to convey intimate emotional truths through the well-tailored theatrical conventions here, but also in her easy interaction with the audience.

At one point, Rink punctuates her avowed love of dessert with bites of chocolate cake and offers a piece to anyone who raises their hand. She delivers it herself, complete with plate and fork, chaffing those who were too shy to take her up on the offer. Sing-alongs and clap-alongs are a given, and when audience members are moved to murmur audible words of sympathy or shock, as they were at a recent performance, their comments become a seamless part of the show with Rink's underplayed but immediate "thank you" and "yeah, I know right?" acknowledgments.

However serious her narrative, Rink performs the show's many musical numbers, including Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" and "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by Scottish band the Proclaimers, with infectious joy and eye-opening expertise.

Surprisingly, if this theatricalized journey inward has a weakness, it comes in how Rink relates the experience that was her life's turning point: separate encounters on one day with three strangers. Each offers her the same mantra of acceptance to live by — with identical wording. This legitimate storytelling device strikes a note in a somewhat different key than the visceral, often throat-catching truth powering Rink's narrative.

The deeply affecting odyssey of self-discovery ends movingly with projected video and photographs of Rink's son and family, and with this talented and courageous artist's knockout performance — after a quick costume change — of her song based on the show's redemptive title.

What: "Wrap Your Heart Around It"

Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday; 4 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Aug. 11.

Tickets: $35 to $38.

More info: (818) 955-8101, http://www.falcontheatre.com

--LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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