Ooh la la!
Last Sunday afternoon at the Kahilu, interested theatergoers participated in a pre-show intimate tête-à-tête with Award Winning Stage and Musical Directors Scott Skiba and Paul Floyd (Floyd also conducted the 21-piece orchestra) and Costume Designer Michelle Hartman.
Local resident and business owner of Big Island Grown in Honokaa, Hartman has costumed other HPAF and Kahilu shows. Having HPAF utilize local talent is terrific, as this is the grassroots of bringing such an international and professional training festival to Hawai’i Island. Hartman shared her creativity (i.e., Orpheus character Cupid’s rainbow attire) and how she loves to upscale costume pieces, enlisting the aid of friends to costume the 31-member cast for Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.
In addition to his role as Assistant Artistic Director for the Festival, Skiba directed Don Giovanni (2017 with Evan Bravos from last week’s modern opera As One) and The Tragedy of Carmen (2019) at Kahilu; plus, the Young Singer program in 2018 at Hawaii Preparatory Academy. His vision for the 1858 operetta, a twisted comic farce based on the Orpheus Greek tragedy, was cleverly made contemporary with references to modern-day media and politics and using a gorgeous shot of our Mauna Kea as the opening backdrop.
Operetta is a step between opera (entirely sung) and today’s modern musical theatre, with parts spoken between sung recitatives, arias, and ensemble pieces. During the Q&A, when asked about the relevance of the high-kicking (French) can-can dance in the production, this year’s HPAF theme of “Self-Discovery” explains this gave women an opportunity to earn more money than male dancers and other benefits for women’s independence not appreciated 250 years ago (read Skiba’s director’s notes). “The can-can was made famous in this Offenbach comic operetta as a woman dancing alone was frowned upon. High kicks make a bold statement about self-discovery and freedom, played throughout this year’s Festival theme.
A brief synopsis — In Offenbach’s version, characters Orpheus and Eurydice, though married to each other, are amicably living separate lives, each blissfully occupied with a new lover. Like Eurydice in the original Greek story, Offenbach’s heroine is fatally bitten by a snake (comically using an inflatable “floatie” serpent), but, rather than dying tragically, she willingly relocates to the Underworld to be with Pluto, ruler of the Underworld—who, in a mortal form, had become her lover while she was alive. Due to pressure from Public Opinion and much against his will, Orpheus acts to retrieve Eurydice. Both he and Eurydice are pleased when his attempt fails. Offenbach was equally irreverent in terms of music, pairing courtly minuets with high-kicking cancans and quoting satirically from (previous composers)’s earlier versions of the opera.
How exciting to see Big Island students Benito Mercia, Olivia Malouf, and Solomon Shumate as the first ones on stage in Act I! (Toward the end of Act II, their cartwheels, Malouf’s split, and can-can kicks with other ladies and Mercias’ long enduring handstand thrilled the audience.) The July 8 review of Music at the Movies (Palace Theatre, Hilo) boasted all the performers of the dually cast Orpheus, and we eagerly anticipated performances by that cast. Former HPAF alum Michelle “Shan Shan” Ding (now Dr. of Musical Arts) returns as a guest performer as director Skiba brilliantly ties contemporary themes to her “Public Opinion” dressed in a blue suit and heels with her social media icon decorated megaphone; she takes her character seriously and urges the Judgmental Chorus of Mercia, Malouf, Shumate.
Sunday’s cast boasted lovely British soprano Susannah Hardwick as Eurydice; Dylan Godbey as Orpheus – a comedic hoot with his tiny violin and adoring students, whom I’ve dubbed the “Awesome Foursome.” The backdrop of our pastoral Waimea/Parker Ranchland added to baritone Ben Johnson’s taunting velvety vocals dressed in his boots, jeans, and Stetson – before we are aware that he is not just Eurydice’s shepherd lover Aristeus, but the devilish Pluto.
The awesome foursome of Marisa Perri (Lolo), Sojung Lim (Coco), Kaitlyn Heit (Toto), and Jamie Lockhart (Dodo) had great fun singing as Orpheus’ devoted student posse, spraying mist while undressing/dressing both Aristeus into his devilish black cape, and later, the god Jupiter (played by resounding baritone Sam Wetzel) into a dazzling fly; they changed into multiple costumes as the four policewomen – go-go dancers and cancan girls.
The sleepy Mount Olympus scene led by Jupiter introduced all the gods – Venus (Julia Sapeta), Cupid (Sarah Strezewski), Mars (Samuel Flores), Diana (Alexandria McNeely), Juno (Zoë Sheller), and Mercury (Frank Watnick). It is mind-boggling to think these young artists have trained so hard – I encourage you to download and read their bios in this season’s HPAF program. Many of them were covers (understudies) – in this pandemic season, a necessary backup.
Counter-tenor Cole Denton played John/Jay Styx. His beautiful voice was matched by hysterical physical comedy with the broom as he unabashedly shares his unrequited devotion for Eurydice in the underworld. Another standout in this performance was Rainbow costumed Strezewski as Cupid – I found my eyes riveted to her energetic portrayal as she encourages “dad” Jupiter to transform – terrific acting and singing by Strezewski, Hardwick, Sapeta, McNeely, and Sheller. The Awesome Foursome had another opportunity to dress/undress a god in transforming Wetzel’s Juno into the sparkling house fly for the fabulous duet of “You are so cute, I am so fly” with Hardwick in Act II.
The operetta was sung in English, and subtitles were projected on the proscenium with a large font which was greatly appreciated – opera is generally not amplified. The volume from the orchestra pit that housed the 21 professional musicians and conductor was perfectly balanced with the space. Still, the proscenium is high at Kahilu, and between Acts I and II, the gentleman on my left and I moved from row E back 4 or 5 rows toward the mezzanine so that we could read the subtitles without having stiff necks. It’s a silly plot that different composers have changed multiple times over the centuries. Still, Skiba’s presentation brings performance chops, an eye-popping bouquet of color on stage, and current relatable events together in a delightful afternoon. The patron sitting in front of me said this was the most she had laughed in a long time. This was good to hear in these unprecedented days of pandemic and new variant challenges!
Mahalo nui to Kahilu Theatre for inviting HPAF to be their Artists in Residence this summer and for show sponsors Michael Thompson and Marilyn and Carl Bernhardt – the value of the arts for the performers and patrons cannot happen without such generosity and devotion to the arts. So, this Thursday and Friday – see the Young Singers Showcase at Gates Performing Arts Center at HPA and Hilo at the Palace Theatre.
Listen to “Behind The Curtain” commentary from Scott Skiba, Michelle Hartman, and Paul Floyd in this podcast.
About the author: Rona Lee studied theatre arts and film at SUNY Purchase (Conservatory – College of Performing Arts) and Communications at the University of Arizona. She traveled abroad with Up With People! (1983-84) and moved to the Big Island from New York in 1990.
Photos/Podcast Production: Steve Roby
Performance date: 17/July/2022
A full calendar of HPAF events and tickets for all events are available by visiting https://hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/. Tickets for Kahilu Theatre events may be purchased at https://kahilutheatre.org/ or via phone at (808) 885-6868.