No holds barred for director Jackie Johnson’s final production at UH Hilo

News Editor Nick Carrion
Photographer Elizabeth Lough

EVITA closeup

Stone-faced pallbearers solemnly march into sight. On either side, the crowd weeps and waves candles. A few feet away, Jackie Johnson watches with a concentrated gaze and a slight smile of satisfaction. For while the funeral may be the opening scene to UH Hilo’s performance of “Evita,” the life they are gathered to celebrate is her own.

Jackie Pualani Johnson has been a fixture of the UH Hilo Performing Arts program, and the college as a whole, for almost 40 years. The matriarch of the Vulcan theater community, she has taught classes as well as directed stage productions at the UH Hilo’s Performing Arts Center. This spring, the Performing Arts Center will host her directorial finale, the musical “Evita.” And with a cast of 58, a dance ensemble, and full orchestra, “Evita” promises that Johnson will go out on a high note.

But staging a Broadway musical in a college theater is no easy task, and Johnson is the first to admit that this will be an ambitious undertaking.

EVITA Cast members in military garb

“This is one of the bigger ones,” she says. “There have been a few throughout the years that have been close to this size, but this one tilts the scale a little bit.The orchestra is one of the biggest ones that we’ve had. And it has to be, because the score is so complex.”

So how does one attempt the grandest production UH Hilo has seen in years? Not without a little help. Student Erin McClure, the stage manager for “Evita,” describes a little of what her job entails in ensuring that everything runs smoothly. When asked what it is that she does, she immediately replies, “Everything.”

“I’m in charge of making sure that all the performers are here on time, or if they’re not here, making sure that they’re coming. And maintaining all the technicians, once we actually incorporate them into the show. And calling cues for lights, sound, things flying in and out, all that,” McClure said.

McClure reflects on how “Evita” differs from productions she has worked on in the past. “Last show it was a lot more of technical things being called, and not too many things coming on and off stage. Versus this show, as you can see, is the show of a million things on wheels, and things on stairs, and lots of things coming on and off. So yes, different.”

Choreographer Celeste Staton controls another part of the performance: the dance ensemble. She talks about the integration of dance into the larger storyline, and how choreographing in this situation can be a challenge.

“I did most of it,” Staton says, “but I feed off of what I see the dancers’ capacity is. But I need to follow the storyline and the scene that Jackie Johnson gives me as the director. And then I create according to the vision that she has, and then the vision that I see for the dance in the space we have on stage.”

As director, Johnson elaborates on the relationship between different media in a musical production.

“The first thing you have to do in an opera is relate to the music. If the tempo is building, and the chords are building, it’s telling you something about that moment in the show. So you’re not imposing on it, you work with that blueprint.”

Of her director, Staton has only nice things to say.

“She’s very organized, she’s very patient, she’s very talented, and demanding as a director. Brings out the best in her actors. And I think partially that’s due to the fact that she trusts them, and they trust her,” Staton said of Johnson.

So “Evita” seems destined to be a performance of epic proportions. But why, out of the entire theatrical canon, did Johnson chose this play to be her grand goodbye? For pure enjoyment, it seems.

“I’ve loved it since I was a kid,” Johnson said. “It was a concert version first, and I played the record and played the record and played the record, and just loved it. I think because of the nature of the score. It’s an opera, it’s all sung, but it’s got latin beats, it’s got rock, it’s got all kinds of stylistic things.”

“I really did muse about it,” she continues. “I thought, should I appear in something? And I thought, no. The role of the director is comprehensive. You are the scenery, you are the actors, you are the costumes, you are the makeup. You have to have this vision [that] encompasses everything, so it’s the most gratifying role. So I thought, ok, I want to go out with the most gratifying role.”

Without giving too much away, Johnson describes the plot of the play, and what it means to her.

“It’s a true life story, and it’s about Evita Duarte, who started with very humble beginnings, I’ve called it ‘meteoric.’ She rose through from poverty to become a film star, a radio star, a businesswoman. It’s that kind of story that’s full of tragedy, but also this incredible sense of being an iconic figure for a whole nation.”

After choosing a standard like “Evita,” a director is faced with a tricky task. How do you set your production apart from the thousands of performances that came before? What makes the UH Hilo version of “Evita” different from any other? It all depends on how you chose to tell the story, according to Johnson.

“Every production, even though you have the blueprint - which is the script - even though you have that, you put your stamp on it. Everything, every moment, every lilt to how something is done, where you place people, where the focus is from one moment to another, those all give you that power that you want for a production.”

Johnson admits that she has tried to take her version in a less-explored direction.

“What I want to hit is more of the human passion. I never watched the movie that Madonna did, but I was told by some of the students in the show that the emphasis was on the political part of it. And I feel like our emphasis is really on the human story. This human being who managed to do incredibly against all odds.”

While optimism and excitement for the production are the primary emotions for Jackie Johnson in the weeks and days leading up, there is a bittersweet tinge as UH Hilo prepares to say goodbye to its own icon. For Johnson though, it’s all positive.

“This really meant a lot to a lot of people, watching actors grow, they appreciate that,” Johnson said. “So in some ways there’s not even a smidgen of remorse. I feel like I’m going out the door with these incredible vibrations of, woo hoo! It’s been a blast!”

“Evita” will be shown April 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, and 15 at 7:30 p.m., and April 9 at 2 p.m. Ticketing information available at the UH Hilo Box Office (808) 932-7490 and at artscenter.uhh.hawaii.edu.

Full disclosure: The editor-in-chief of Ke Kalahea is a member of the “Evita” cast. As a result, the editing of this piece was done by the assistant editor-in-chief.