Korean Cinderella Delights Kahilu Keiki


The Kahilu Theatre offers a wonderful program called Performances for Young Audiences. It gives school children the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of arts and entertainment programs that they wouldn’t normally have access to. Last Thursday and Friday, over the course of four performances, nearly two thousand Big Island keiki got to see a live presentation of the musical A Korean Cinderella.

Kongji, played by Kristy-Li Strand

The Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s (HTY) adaptation of the classic fairy tale Cinderella has been restyled by playwright Alvin Chan. According to Mr. Chan, the inspiration came from Eric Johnson, HTY’s Artistic Director. Johnson wanted to do a Korean piece and heard that there was a Korean version of the Cinderella story. Chan did the research and came up with the idea to make it a K-pop musical with traditional Korean drumming and a few minor plot changes. Both Chan and Johnson have an impressive history of working in theatre productions, and their current endeavor is a hit.

The main character, Kongji Park, as in the original Cinderella version, still has a dissatisfying life and has to answer to her stepmother Sae Uhmuhni (Maki’ilei Ishishara) and evil stepsister Patji (Junior Tesoro) who make her scrub the floor while taking every opportunity to throw some shade in her direction. With the announcement of an upcoming masked ball, Kongji (played by the talented Kristy-Li Strand) fantasizes about attending, but quickly realizes she only owns a shabby patchwork dress and will never be able to complete a newly assigned list of chores on time.

The evil stepsister Patji

With the help of an ox, a talking turtle, a flock of sparrows, and the ghost of her mother, Kongji is able to complete her tasks and go to the ball. While dancing with the town’s attractive Mayor (played by Sean-Joseph Choo), Kongji’s identity is briefly revealed. As she flees the dance, she loses one of her red slippers in the chaos. When the Mayor unsuccessfully tries to find the slipper’s owner, he discovers Kongji has been pushed into a river. Kongji is resuscitated but is leery of the Mayor’s passionate intentions – “Were you just trying to kiss me?!,” Kongji exclaims in displeasure and disbelief.

The Mayor finds Kongji’s slipper

The traumatic near-death experience awakens the young women’s cry for independence from her current situation. “I’m not going to take it anymore!” she announces to all. To avoid prison, her stepfamily agrees to leave town, Kongji gets her life together and pursues her real desire – to be a K-pop star! Kongji now sports a shiny new red dress and rose-colored glasses while singing the musical’s finale “My Life.”

Kongji gets her groove on as a K-pop star

Sprinkled throughout the musical are several memorable songs with a hip-hop beat. As I write this review, I can’t get the line “Kongji, Kongji, the one and only” out of my head. Also impressive was the Korean drumming segment. Even the lead character showed off her percussive skills.

A Korean Cinderella was first produced by HTY in 2013 and played both on Oahu and the neighbor islands. It was brought back this season and played on Oahu at Tenney Theatre in August and September and has been touring the neighbor islands in October and November. In 2013, it played in Hilo, Waimea, and Kona. While the musical only runs 60 minutes, it seemed to be the perfect program length for the young audience.

Audience Reaction
Friday night’s crowd really loved the show especially the interaction with the cast. The young girls who sat behind me often spoke to the players on stage like they, too, were part of the story. There were times when the cast, like the lovable ox character, left the stage and came into the audience. Sheets of blue fabric (“water sleeves”) were distributed to the crowd, and they were told to move them up and down like the rapid waves of the river where Kongji’s body was tossed.

The musical’s encore was a PSA song for the Office of Public Health Preparedness.  The catchy tag line: “We’re not scared, we’re prepared!” was obviously a hit with the keiki in attendance. As I was leaving the theatre, two young girls passed me singing the tag line with gusto, over and over and over.

The Honolulu Theatre for Youth
In his pre-show introduction, the Kahilu Theatre’s Artistic Director, Chuck Gessert, read HTY’s mission statement. In a way, it mirrors the Kahilu’s goals for its performing arts classes for youth: “HTY works toward a future for Hawai‘i in which people are culturally literate and imaginative, are critical thinkers and inventive problem-solvers, with a respect for history and a sense of place in a complex world. HTY believes that drama education and theatre are unique, socially-based education and art forms that help their participants and audiences walk in the shoes of others, allowing them to expand their imaginations, enrich their lives and discover the infinite possibilities in the world.”

After the show, cast members greeted the audience in the theatre, signed programs, and took photos with fans.

Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the managing editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby


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