REVIEW: “Hilo: Da Musical,” Hilo in all its zany glory, at the UH Hilo theatre

Playwright and director Jackie Johnson brings to life a colorful cast of characters to enact the everyday magic, cultural hodgepodge, and at times wackiness of Hilo.

By Kara Nelson.

In costume, aloha wear and straw hats. He holds a camera.
Glenn Fernandez and Char Fernandez as the tourists in “Hilo: Da Musical.” Photos by Kara Nelson.

On Thursday, April 16, three aliens landed in Hilo, Hawai‘i, and kidnapped one local teen. The event was witnessed by a well-filled audience at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Performing Arts Center for the Hawai‘i and world premiere of UH Hilo Professor of Drama Jackie Pualani Johnson’s new play, Hilo: Da Musical.

Various UH Hilo students, faculty, retired faculty, and alumni and community members came together to enact and stage the everyday magic, rich cultural hodgepodge, and at times wackiness that comprise Hilo. Three fantastically-costumed aliens observe the occurrences while three college students expose the many elements that make Hilo so wonderful.

Haili Debus portrayed Sister Justina and Malu Debus as main character Leinani Hailihō.
Backstage after performance, (l-r) Haili Debus, who plays Sister Justina, and Malu Debus, starring as main character Leinani Hailihō. Photos by Kara Nelson.

The acting and music are perhaps the most glorious elements of the play. Malu Debus, Scott Wuscher, and Kimo Apaka shine as the cast’s three lead teens. Songs like “Hilo My Home Town” by Betty Lou Yuen make the heart swell with pride for Hilo’s aloha, while people can laugh with the fun of the “Farmer’s Market Fugue,” with lyrics by Johnson, the “SPAM Song,” by Wendell Ing, or a special song about a ubiquitous pest taking over Hilo.

The two-act play has many funny scenes, such as “Cop School,” “Spamaholics Anonymous,” and “Do, Re, Mi, Pho Restaurant.” Local audience members can find much to relate to, whether the variety of restaurant patrons one will see on any given day or the danger of running into an ex-husband’s crazy girlfriend.

In tank top and lei, Scott Wuscher, shown backstage after the show, plays abducted teen Hōkū Alaka'i Hailiho.
Scott Wuscher, shown backstage after the show, plays abducted (by aliens) teen Hōkū Alaka’i Hailiho.

Many of the jokes that fill the comedy/musical rang true with the opening-night audience comprised of young and old alike. During the play, the audience would laugh, make comments, or even call out in answer to cues. For example, when Kimo, as a radio commentator in the play, mentioned Ken’s House of pancakes and rung a gong, a few people in the audience shouted, “SUMO!” as if they were customers at Ken’s calling out when someone orders a “SUMO”-portioned meal.

In costume: Backstage: (l-r) Hawai‘i Community College student Keone Kalawe as Elvis Jesus Kailikoa Moses Napoleon and UH Hilo astronomy major Emily Peavy as Alien #3.
Backstage: (l-r) Tory Nakamura as Elvis and UH Hilo astronomy major Emily Peavy as Alien #3.

The audience cheered and clapped during many parts, especially as ​Tory Nakamura portrayed Elvis, singing and gyrating his hips while wearing an Elvis wig and jeweled white jumpsuit with plunging neckline when performing the “Kanawai Medley” (lyrics by Johnson and arranged by Rich Gomez), a medley of popular Elvis songs with lyrics changed to fit Hilo. For example, these words sung to the tune of “Hound Dog”: “You ain’t nothin’ but one babooze, / Speedin’ all da time. / You really stay one panty, / Brakin’ on a dime.” The Elvis cameo is only one of the delightful national pop culture references sprinkled amongst all the unique Hilo cultural references.

Karl Hennen, a fall 2014 graduate of UH Hilo and tutor at Hilo High School, saw the play on opening night and says, “It definitely captured the spirit of Hilo.”

A graduating English major, Chris Greineisen, adds, “It was cool. It captured the culture very well.” He calls the play “witty and intellectual.”

Carrie Ip and Jackie Johnson (bedecked in lei). Sign: Carrie.
(l-r) Actor Carrie Ip (Juju Moony and Exactee) and playwright Jackie Johnson after opening night performance of Hilo: Da Musical.

After the performance, Carrie Ip, who portrays Juju Moony and Exactee, exclaimed, “It feels great, it’s just kinda surreal, I guess — but there’s three more days to go!”

Ip, a graduate of Waiākea High School, resident of Hawai‘i since 2006, and a graduating UH Hilo biology major with minors in chemistry and English, had auditioned for the play “on a whim.” The play was her stage debut. She felt she could relate to many of the scenes and see herself in both major and minor characters alike.

“One commonality that we (actors) all have is that we love Hilo, that’s why we’re part of this musical,” Ip says. “It’s just bringing out that love, expressing it in a very artistic and beautiful way. It’s been a really fun and exciting experience, something that I’ve never done before, so I’m really glad I’m part of the project.”

In the director’s notes, Johnson writes, “It takes a village… or at least a small town of circa 45,000 people, to make a musical that celebrates its diversity and colorful daily life. I am indebted to so many who spent hours bringing this tribute to the stage: composers, musicians, actors, technicians, students, family, friends — all who have chosen to call dear ‘ol Hilo ‘home.’ And choose we had to, indeed, when rain dictates what umbrella we carry each day or what bento shop to frequent, jes’ in case gotta run inside fo’ stay dry. Yes, tonight’s show will be filtered through my 62-years of life here in Hilo, ku‘u one hānau, but it, hopefully, will ring true for many of you as well.”

Further, Johnson writes: “It is meant to nurture giggles and reflections about who we are and what we hold dear, honoring folks from many walks of life who add pizzazz to our time in Paradise — all of this within a very theatrical framework that should bring a laugh or two.”

After the play, Johnson was bedecked in lei and looking thrilled. “I’m so happy we live in a place like Hilo, where there’s so much to giggle about and to be proud of. Because that’s what we all did, we all identified with ourselves on the stage. (For example) everyone said they gave directions like that all their lives!” she said, referring to the crazy local-style driving directions portrayed in the “cop school” segment of the play. “But I feel euphoric. It’s my big mahalo to this wonderful moku we live on, Hawai‘i nei.”

Showings and tickets

The fun of Hilo: Da Musical can still be experienced by Hawai‘i Island residents of all ages and backgrounds tonight and tomorrow, April 17 and 18, at 7:30 p.m., and at the play’s final showing on April 19 at the 2:00 p.m. matinee.

Tickets are open seating and priced at $15 General, $10 Discount and $5 UH Hilo/Hawaii Community College students (with a valid student ID) and children, up to age 17, pre-sale, and $20 General, $10 Discount and $10 UH Hilo/Hawaii CC students (with a valid student ID) and children, up to age 17, day of show.

Tickets are available by calling the UH Hilo Box Office at 932-7490 or by ordering online.


About the author of this story: Kara Nelson is a senior at UH Hilo double majoring in English and communication. She is an intern in the Office of the Chancellor and writer for UH Hilo Stories.

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