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Review: ‘Return to Waikiki’ a welcome addition

History can be a tough sell in Waikiki. Kathy Paulo did a beautiful one-woman show about Ainahau, the long-since-demolished home of Princess Kaiulani; the show brought some visitors to tears with images of the concrete jungle now in place there — it didn’t last long.

Roy Tokujo tried twice to share the history of Waikiki in “Waikiki nei” without either whitewashing the facts or offending visitor industry power brokers; he failed both times. Makana is doing much better sharing the history of Hawaiian music in his ambitious new dinner show, “Return to Waikiki.”

One of the memorable moments is when Makana’s bassist, charismatic Lono Kaumeheiwa, explains why he pushed for the group to do “Malia My Tita,” a song popularized by the Invitations more than 50 years ago. The story doesn’t sound like scripted tourist show patter about a staple tourist show number but rather a musician’s honest feelings about a favorite song.

As for the broader theme, it gets brought into the show thanks to Auntie Niele — a character played by steel guitarist Buck Giles in the transvestite tradition pioneered by Booga Booga with their Porky Teves Trio sketch in the ‘70s. Auntie tells Makana to stop playing “slack rock” music and play old-style Hawaiian music instead.

Makana explains to the audience that the original old-style Hawaiian music was percussion and chant, and a video clip of a Hawaiian chanter provides the accompaniment for male hula kahiko representative of pre-Contact Hawaii. Makana and his musicians then return to the stage and play songs representing the contributions of the missionaries, Heinrich “Henri” Berger (no relation), Tin Pan Alley, Andy Cummings and Gabby Pahinui.

Berger deserves more than a snare drum solo by multi-faceted percussionist Richard Marquez, but Makana’s performance as the lead vocalist on Cummings’ “Only Ashes Remain” is one of several remarkable showcase numbers for him as a singer rather than musician.

A second showcase number is Makana’s crooner-style rendition of “I’ll Remember You.” He introduced it on opening night as a song that had been cut during rehearsals but “re-added” at the request of people who’d heard him sing it. He dedicated it opening night to Jimmy Borges, who was at one the VIP tables in the audience and who had sung in the International Market Place in the ‘70s (Also in the house for opening night were Regina Kawananakoa, Bill Tapia, and Daniel Dae Kim and his wife, Mia).

Makana’s third big vocal number was a passionate solo performance of “Waikiki.” Sung without the opening verse — “There’s a feeling, deep in my heart…” — it was a perfect summation to the show although not the last song in it.

THERE ARE other delights along the way. The interaction between Makana, Kaumeheiwa and Marques on several numbers on one of them – the trio’s work together on “Koi” is as interesting visually as it is musically.

Slack key is introduced early in the show. Makana demonstrates the distinctively different sounds of standard and slack key tuning so that visitors can quickly and easily understand the difference. That’s a good idea and a great touch.

A later number, “The Poi Song,” allows him to demonstrate his showmanship – it’s a number residents never get tired of and is certain to amaze first-timers.

Giles, George Lopez (acoustic bass/vocals) and Jace Saplan (acoustic piano) expand the range and entertainment value of the show. Saplan is essential in presenting the musical traditions of himeni (Christian hymns) and gets a well-deserved solo on “Malia My Tita.” Kaumeheiwa switches to acoustic guitar on the numbers where Lopez plays bass (he also plays Hawaiian nose flute); Giles doubles on percussion and dances the role of a “drunken sailor” in a hapa haole segment.

Florence Iwalani Koannui joins the guys twice for comic hulas. The second is much more risqué than the first – but she didn’t take it to such explicit lengths with Makana as in some previous public performances.

Marquez stands out with his work on a number of percussive instruments. Marquez’ performance with Makana at the Waikiki Aquarium last month was a sample of his myriad contributions here.

THE BIGGEST problem as of the opening night performance on Saturday was with the preshow “radio program” in which Giles, in costume as Auntie Niele, is joined by Sonny Shores (Makana) in playing old-time Hawaiian and hapa haole songs. Neither of them could be heard clearly over the music and they spent far too much time talking over the vocals of the songs they were playing.

From what could be heard it seemed that Makana was doing an impression of Groucho Marx, and that he and Giles were improvising as they went without being sure where their comic bits were going. The accent was distracting; the attempt at improv didn’t work.

A quibble, perhaps outdated, is about the inclusion of the song “Okole Maluna.” Anyone with entry level knowledge of Hawaiian knows that okole translates as “anus,” and that a more appropriate word for the buttocks is lemu On the other hand if Makana wants to make the point that people were writing hapa haole songs without knowing the meaning of the Hawaiians words they were using, “Okole Maluna” is as good as example as any.

The lu‘au presentation lived up to expectations: There was more than enough kalua pig, steamed fish, barbecue chicken and chunky lomi lomi salad — and an entire roast pig. Many residents will want double servings of the crunchy pig skin and two containers of thick firm poi.

The local economy being what it is, “Return to Waikiki” is not a show that many residents are going to check out on a whim. However, for a special occasion, or something special when entertaining out-of-town guests, it is an excellent alternative to Waikiki’s established Polynesian revues and showroom attractions.

Return to Waikiki

» Where: International Market Place
» When: 6:00 p.m. (dinner show) and 8:30 p.m. (cocktail show) Thursdays through Saturdays
» Cost: $95 to $125 general admission and $55 for children ages 4 to 11 years old (dinner show; tax not included); $20 general admission (cocktail show), includes two drinks
» Info: 542-6567 or www.returntowaikiki.com
» Note: $6 validated parking available (good for 4 hours) at Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel

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