[Story and photos by Mike Foley: Originally published August 17, 2009]
The Tongans welcome the young couple
into their lives and community
The Polynesian Cultural Center, where I have worked off-and-on in various student, full-time and freelance capacities for the past 41 years, premiered its latest night show — Ha: Breath of Life — on August 14, 2009. During those years I’ve seen almost all of the previous productions, and in a word, I think the new show is fantastic.
Ha — which literally means “breath” — carries such an important Hawaiian connotation that it’s included in such words as aloha, which some people say refers to the exchanging of breath in the traditional Hawaiian honi or Maori hongi [when two people press foreheads and noses, as depicted above between Mana, at right, and his father]; and ‘ohana or “family,” which is derived from the word ‘ohs — the taro corm that grows as an offshoot from the older root, from which the Hawaiian staple poi is made.
The PCC’s Ha: Breath of Life is designed to tell a universal “circle of life” story in Polynesian terms, starting with a young couple expecting their first child who flee their home island to escape a volcanic eruption. They find a new home, and the audience watches the progress of the couple and their son, Mana, as he grows, becomes a man, falls in love with Lani, and starts his own family.
[Left: The marriage of Lani, played by Luçie Wilson on opening night, and Mana, played by Ricky Suaava]
It’s all done very well, with a truly talented cast of over 100, built upon three years of hard work and $3 million-plus in improvements to the PCC’s Pacific Theater, which now features new surround-sound, a new stage layout, lighting and staging effects, specially designed animation sequences and remodeled backstage facilities to accommodate the new production.
Ha succeeded Horizons: Where the Sky Meets the Sea, which ran for 14 years. That’s equivalent to nine million people watching approximately 4,500 performances.
It also carries on a tradition that began October 12, 1963, when over 200 islanders put on the first evening show for the more than 1,000 guests who attended the dedication ceremonies for the brand new Cultural Center. In those early years evening shows were only performed on Saturdays — the only night the PCC could draw a big enough crowd.
Then for a while the show was performed on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, which made it convenient to practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays when new shows were being staged. We would even close down the theater for a week of final rehearsals… but that just wasn’t good business, and soon enough the increasing popularity of the night show meant the Center put it on Monday through Saturday.
The Hawaiians celebrate Mana’s survival into childhood with
feasting and hula
As the numbers grew, so did the original amphitheater, which was most recently morphed into the Hale Aloha luau theater. In the beginning, however, only 600 people fit in there. The overhanging roof didn’t cover all the guests, and the cast not at all. In fact, on many nights the cast soldiered on through the rain, while those guests not under cover had to scurry under the eaves or watch huddled under umbrellas and plastic ponchos.
More seats were added in the front and along the sides, to the point where the capacity for each performance was approximately doubled; but still that wasn’t enough sometimes.
Throughout this time the “volcano” backdrop and the “water curtain” were big hits. In fact, I can remember having to clean the curtain’s little nozzles as a student worker, and cranking the big valve inside the “volcano” to make it go on and off. Pineapple deelites were also a big hit during intermission: They have been around for a long time.
[Left: Ha: Breath of Life concludes with the birth of Mana and Lani’s baby, Hina]
In the mid-1970s the Center began construction on what is now called the Pacific Theater, which has a current capacity of 2,675, but even so over the years the Center has put on many “double shows,” one starting at 6 p.m. and the second one at 8 p.m. to accommodate the crowds.
…and the guests have overwhelmingly loved the night show. Over 90 percent of them rank the night show as the best part of their Polynesian Cultural Center experience in statistically valid satisfaction surveys. In fact, the latest generation of satisfaction surveys combines high tech wireless feedback, computers and video images that can show second-by-second guest feedback that enables the management team to really fine-tune various parts of the production.
What’s the most popular part for the guests? Anything with fire — such as the Samoan fire walkers and knife dancers, and the Tahitian dancers.
And for the cast and crew? Being part of a great tradition: Many PCC alumni will tell you the friendships they formed in the villages and backstage are unforgettable. A lot of them turned into marriages and families — mine did — and some of those have resulted in second, third and even a few fourth-generation performers.