Afta da ‘Afta’
I attended the July 1st show of Lisa Matsumoto's Happily Eva Afta, produced by Manoa Valley Theatre in residence at Kaimuki High School. The show seemed packed, almost sold out. There were lots of families in attendance. The late Matsumoto's work is very well known throughout the islands, and even though this is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by Once Upon One Time and Once Upon One Noddah Time, respectively) Happily Eva Afta is episodic, which means you don't have to had seen the previous two in order to grasp this plot and have fun. Sure, there are lots of plot and character callbacks, but not once did I feel alienated.
Da Narrators Kaha'i, Kelli, and a Surfer (Devon Nakoba, Liz Corotan, Dylan Lee) are trying to tell and subsequently finish the story of Ikaika (Darian Aquino) and Lokelani (Aimee Nelson) as they come of age and embark on quests to break a fairy's curse and find a partner to attend their party with. Lots of characters get mixed up into the fray as Da Narrators are able to manifest any character from any story on stage. Through two acts of local hijinks, fairies, menehune, Disney Princesses, Chinese families, and Filipino shoemakers (to name a few), we reach the ending of the story that lives up to its title, leaving you with a Happily Eva Afta.
The script is long, and often meanders, which is where you begin to feel the passage of time during the production. In fact, the sheer speed of which Act Two wraps things up could have you feeling whiplash because of the slow and introductory pace you were used to in Act One. I feel the Director, Brad Powell, should have driven to tighten up the show's cues to keep pace, and thus, some of the show's flatter gags and jokes may not have fallen short. Speaking of Powell, his choreography left something to be desired as the dancing in the production felt simple all too often, with the exception of times when the certain members of the cast would be able to highlight a flourish or a flip they could do. The sound was inconsistent throughout the show- if a cast member did not have a mic (quite a few with substantial parts or story lines did not have mics, it seemed), it was harder to hear and understand them. Enunciation also could have been stronger across the board, and this not just directed at the pidgin-speaking roles. There was no fight choreographer listed in the program that I saw, which had me worried as there were a couple of close calls during physical sequences the night that I attended.
That being said, I had fun. As someone who grew up on Oahu, I loved the jokes at Hawaii's melting pot and ethnicities that came out left and right. The cast seemed to be very tight with each other- they clearly enjoyed performing together, which is very warming to see. When the cast had to do things together as units and groups, it was beautifully tight and fluid at the same time- often times these bigger jokes and sequences landed because the pacing in their respective groups (Da Tree Fairies, Da Six Menehunes, the Dancing Princesses immediately come to mind) was quick and not a cue was dropped. Set Design/Scenic Artist M.J. Matsuhita did a wonderful job with bringing us to this mythical local kingdom, and even has hidden the previous works of Matsumoto on the set. Costume Designer James Corry and Hair & Makeup Designer Lisa Ponce de Leon had a monumental task ahead of them (a cast of 30+!), and succeeded in creating great dynamic and distinct looks for this Hawaiian quilt of a cast.
At the end of this show, I was conflicted. I had fun, and laughed quite a lot. However, there are clear problems with it, leaving the show quite uneven in my mind. If you are expecting a technically tight show, complete with polish and bells and whistles, you have been warned. If you would like to watch a production made in the vein of one of Hawaii's longest standing traditions —storytelling— complete with a cast comprised of MVT faithful and Kaimuki High School/KHSPAC turning each page with their hearts, then be prepared to laugh heartily.
Note: The night that I attended had three substitutions. Aunty Dis was played by U'ilani Kapuaakuni, How Come was played by Charley Tran, and Chah Ming Won was played by Matthew Mazella.