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Review: ‘Once Upon One Time’

Country star Tim McGraw’s recent hit, “If You’re Reading This,” includes the words: “If you’re reading this / There’s gonna come a day / When you’ll move on / And find someone else / And, Baby, that’s OK.”

Manoa Valley Theatre’s summer production of “Once Upon One Time” shows that the sentiment can apply equally well to theater.

The show is the first community theater production of playwright Lisa Matsumoto’s definitive pidgin musical since her tragic death in 2007, and only the second time another actor has had to play a role Matsumoto wrote and developed for herself. The tight-knit core group of actors Matsumoto featured in her shows over the years are absent for other reasons, but their absence heightens the sense of moving on. MVT guest director Elitei Tatafu Jr., and his talented cast make that surprising easy to do.

After all, the show is still her ever-popular amalgamation of ideas from MAD magazine, Rocky & Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” Kent “K.K. Ka‘umanua” Bowman, and Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine. It’s a recipe that never gets old for Hawaii audiences, and, as always, the comic characters stand out.

DA MENEHUNES — Shawn Thompson (Who), Chris Riel (Wat), Braddoc DeCaires (Wen), Allan J.N. Lau (Wea), Marvin Miyoshi (Why) and Allan Okubo (How Come) — are a tightly synchronized team that riffs their way through Matsumoto’s pidgin variations of “Who’s On First?” in winning style and prove themselves capable comic dancers as well. Okubo quickly became an audience favorite on opening night as the well-intentioned but simple-minded menehune who is eventually renamed Lolo.

Single-monikered Kala’au has several good scenes as the dim-witted hunter who unwittingly spares Nalani in Matsumoto’s pidgin version of “Snow White.” He too distinguishes himself as a dancer and physical comedian.

Hawaii stage veterans Michael Ng (Narrator 1) and Jarrod Kamakoa Bailon (Narrator 2) are also assets to the production. Ng gets to show his range as a comic actor in the scenes where his character is smitten by a beautiful lost princess (well-played by MVT newcomer Ashley Weismantel).

TRANSVESTITE PERFORMERS and stereotypical Filipino characters have been a staple part of Matsumoto’s musicals from the beginning. Michael Pa‘ekukui (Da Mean Step Motherr), Blaise Baldonado (Hauna) and Chevy Martinez (Tanataran) uphold both those traditions in crowd-pleasing style as the villains in Matsumoto’s deconstruction of “Cinderella.” Baldonado and Martinez make the most of their opportunities to steal the show as comic actors and dancers. They also show a fine command of stereotypical Filipino accents.

Most important in the “moving on” process is the success of Pomai Lopez (Da Wicked Queen) and Daryl Bonilla (Da Mean Mongoose) in stepping into the roles originated and developed by Matsumoto and Patrick Fujioka respectively. Lopez does a convincing job in making the role her own and won over the opening night audience with her first scene. Bonilla’s off-stage fame as the “that’s my bank” guy in local commercials gave Tatafu the opportunity to get an extra laugh out of a reference to the Bank of Hawaii.

Lopez and Bonilla also prove well matched as all-around performers in their two big song-and-dance duets, ‘Bad Is Baaad” and “Da Villain’s Lament.”

DIRECTOR TATAFU improves on Matsumoto’s work in one respect. Much of the dialogue consists of characters being rude to other characters and with “outsider” characters who speak Standard English typically being treated with an extra amount of abuse. Tatafu’s take on the material doesn’t lack for laughs, and insult-comedy fuels many of them, but the show feels a bit kinder and gentler nonetheless.

Tatafu’s production crew makes MVT’s production a beautiful show to watch. MJ Matsushita (Set Design) and Janine Myers (Lighting Design) share credit for the atmospheric multi-level forest. Sara Ward (Props Design) enhances the actors’ work with an impressive assortment of eye-catching props.

Catherine L. Jones (Choreography) makes important contributions of the production’s sense of newness and moving on with her fresh takes on the major dance numbers.

(Note: Da Mean Step Motherr is the correct spelling per the playbill and evidently intended to represent an exaggerated Filipino pronunciation of “mother.” The spellings of the two song titles, “Bad Is Baaaad” and “Da Villain’s Lament” are also per the playbill.)

‘Once Upon One Time’
» Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 East Manoa Road
» When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 3:30 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 8
» Cost: $35 general admission; $20 for those 25 years and younger
» Info: 988-6131 or www.manoavalleytheatre.com

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