Kū i Ka Mana, Kū i Ka Lanakila!
Note: Due to the font our website utilizes, this community review is missing several proper Hawaiian language diacritical marks, including a few belonging in the title of this review. HTS apologizes for this oversight.
It's 1874 in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fear, anticipation, and confusion abound as subjects of the kingdom, from all levels of late nineteenth-century Hawaiian society await the results of the election. Who will be the new monarch? Who will lead the kingdom fairly and solidly out of the turmoil of the rapidly declining native Hawaiian population, a threatened language and the skulduggery of the oligarchs' power struggle? Who indeed?
The students, faculty and extended ʻohana of Kamehameha Schools - Hawai'i High School have brilliantly staged a mesmerizing, thought-provoking rock opera of Kū i Ka Mana: The Election of 1874, here in Hilo i ka ua Kanilehua, the land of incessant, lehua-fragrant rain.
Elections and the controversy they incite, a timeless, all-too-familiar topic over which we all ponder. This time, it's set to the words and music of a rock opera. Well paced and contemporary albeit extremely relevant to the big issue of early 1874; succession to the throne.
The story opens in the bedroom of King William Charles Lunalilo,(Jorden Kealoha-Yamanaka) the dying king. He knows the end is nigh, but he fears the struggle which might ensue. "The gods know best...the gods will even out the odds...", the loyal subjects sing. The lyrics are resonant and nicely woven into the time period and the traditional vs. changing perceptions of troubled times in Hawai'i.
Oil-painted portraits and statues, well known to us all, come alive, adding another dimension to history. The main players on the royal chess board enter in due succession. Nā wāhine first, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, (Jade Young), the only cast member to be demurely costumed in pure white; interesting visual statement. She painstakingly ponders over the dying monarch's request as a previously chosen successor to the throne. Her innermost thoughts are communicated to us in the foreboding lyrics, "soon to be strangers in our land...change one language for another one..." Auē! How time echoes back to us.
Next on stage is Queen Emma, (Leaiana Clark) recently widowed, nonetheless confident,sassy and competitive. She, in direct contrast to Bernice Pauahi, wears a riding hat and bolder costume, cleverly reflecting her passion for horseback riding and outdoor activities.
Now, are you ready for this one? Here he comes, charismatic Colonel David Kalākaua, (Jameson Kapuni Elia Sato), this actor is already a veteran to the American High School Theatre Festival at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Strutting on stage like a true rock star in his edgy, punk-Mohican coif, cleverly reflecting a Hawaiian warrior's mahiole helmet. He's a crowd-pleasing, dynasty builder. His supporters cheer and scream, it was almost like being at a Beatles concert, a real "sixties concert" kind of swooning, hair-pulling, squealing scream. This political machine will be a tough one to topple. He sings a very resonant and powerful, Kū Kanaka. This piece is magical, it nearly evolves into a chant as he repeats "he kanaka kākou!". It's inspirational, it grips the crowds, it's decisive. Tough scene to follow, but the pace does continue.
The harmless but telling banter between Bernice Pauahi and her American-born husband, the influential and well-heeled financier conveys a message of generosity and benevolence to the audience. We clearly see an estate in the making.
Conflicts and personal ambitions nicely woven into song, magically transformed the pages of a history book into an engaging two-hour performance. We see and hear versions of how the royals interacted, who they supported and what they feared in years to come. A disruption by Kalākaua to the upbeat but tranquil scene of a wahine tea social under the tamarind tree at the Bishop residence keeps us in suspense. We see necessary alliances being sealed by Lydia Kamakaʻeha/ Liliʻuokalani ( Kyra Gomes) and Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani (Tiari Faʻagata).
The opera's conclusion leaves us feeling bewildered, the cast looks out at us, towards the near and even more disturbingly distant future. They seem to see the stakes growing higher, like the tassels of sugar cane in their time.
Special effects were well chosen on a high school performance budget. Red smoke and music communicate the blast of post-election riots staged by the dissenting,disillusioned voters. Weaving both Hawaiian and English into the opera, selecting the right words and phrases at the right moments for emphasis and meaning were well chosen.
Bravo to director Erick Stack and music director Herb Mahelona. The performance swept me away to the old kingdom and for a well-paced, two hours, it transported us all and left us with a lot to think and talk about. I especially enjoyed Stack's comment in his director's notes referring to hallowed personages, " Our intent was not to lampoon, but to humanize, making their lives a source of empowerment rather than passive veneration".
The proceeds of this two-night performance will assist in funding Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi's return to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Laki maikaʻi ʻoukou!
Written by Vanessa Lee-Miller