News Column

The 2013-2014 theater season

July 28, 2013

YellowBrix

July 28--Cautious optimism.

That's the general feeling as Oahu's diverse theater groups raise the curtain on the 2013-2014 season. Audience support is generally steady, ticket sales are promising and funding -- always a challenge -- is much better than it could be.

And for stage fans an enticing assortment of choices awaits.

There's opera and Shakespeare, blockbuster Broadway musical revivals and edgy modern plays, the works of several resident playwrights and a Disney juggernaut:

--Tony Pisculli and the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival are celebrating a mission accomplished. When "As You Like It" opens next month, the group will have presented the entire Shakespeare canon.

--Tom Holowach and Ron Bright are anticipating a smash run for their production of "Les Miserables" at Paliku Theatre in September.

--The Actors' Group presents a new work by a local playwright Eric Nemoto next month and will present "Radio Golf," another in August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" in January.

--Kumu Kahua has Lee Cataluna in November, and Honolulu Theatre for Youth will put a local spin on Cinderella and Peter Rabbit as both troupes continue to spotlight Hawaii playwrights.

--The University of Hawaii's Kennedy Theatre will celebrate its 50th-anniversary season with "Lady Mu and the Yang Family Generals," a full-costume Chinese opera staged according to traditions but performed in English in February.

--Disney's "The Lion King" will roar into the Blaisdell Concert Hall for a hana hou engagement that starts in January.

--Hawaii Opera Theatre is switching from its traditional spring season of three full-scale shows in the course of a month to a schedule of three shows spaced evenly throughout the year.

Henry Akina, general and artistic director of HOT, describes it as "a significant change" driven in part by ticket sales.

"Ticket sales, if we're sold out, account for about 40 percent of our revenue. ... We had (ticket sale declines) of 5 percent yearly going back for three years. The opera is a challenged art form -- we all know this -- and we're trying to make it relevant and continue a 50-year tradition of presenting opera in Honolulu and 33 years of being our own nonprofit. We think it's important that there is opera in Honolulu."

Although ticket sales don't cover all the costs incurred by any of the local theater groups, they're an essential part of the financial equation. Pisculli of the Shakespeare Festival says ticket sales cover about 90 percent of production costs and about 60 percent of the company's total expenses.

"The rest I pay out of pocket," he said.

The box office covers about half the costs at Honolulu Theatre for Youth and one-third of Kumu Kahua's budget. Marty Myers, manager of UH's Kennedy Theatre, relies on a combination of ticket sales and grants to cover production expenses. Extensive additional fundraising is necessary to finance its critically acclaimed full-costumed productions such as "Lady Mu."

At Windward Community College's Paliku Theater, Holowach said any profits from ticket sales help maintain the facility. "The rest of our overhead is covered by renting the theater to outside groups during the year," he said.

In short, all theater groups walk a financial tightrope. Ticket revenue is essential, as is community and corporate support, but prices must be kept low enough so the shows remain affordable to as many people as possible.

Several of Akina's colleagues share his commitment to "staying relevant" and getting the next generation of potential audiences into the theater. Manoa Valley Theatre, for instance, offers discounts to people 25 and younger.

"There are students going to school for this very thing, so you want to encourage them to be able to see as much theater as possible," MVT associate producer Bree Bumatai said. "We certainly have an older, more sophisticated crowd, and we (also) do things like 'Toxic Avenger' and 'Spring Awakening' and 'Rent,' which brings a lot of the younger musical lovers."

Fears that major touring company shows such as last season's "Wicked" and the upcoming "Disney's The Lion King" gobble up the public's limited entertainment dollars have not necessarily been justified. In fact, the flashy, popular visiting productions can ignite interest in the theater outside the usual demographic and inspire local stage groups to find a creative niche for success.

The touring company shows "can convince adults that theater for families can be just as creative, innovative and compelling as theater for adults," said HTY Artistic Director Eric Johnson. "And by making a higher percentage of our work about our specific community, we can create work locally that does not compete with national work, but adds a unique voice to the theatrical conversation at large.

"While new work is considered 'riskier' in most communities, we have found that the opportunity to provide programing that really speaks to the place and people living in Hawaii is also interesting to young people, teachers and families who are looking for something they won't easily experience on television or in the movies."

Season ticket sales at HTY have doubled in the past two years, according to Johnson.

While several theater companies reported a significant hit when the national touring company production of "The Lion King" played Honolulu in 2007, John Rampage, artistic director of Diamond Head Theatre, echoed the experiences of other groups that found that "Wicked" didn't have the same impact.

"We were doing 'Annie' (while 'Wicked' was here), and we sold out every performance," Rampage said. "We knew it was coming before we planned the season, so we were able to plan accordingly."

Holowach explained that local audiences weren't as familiar with "Wicked" as they were with "The Lion King," so advance ticket sales for the touring production were sluggish.

"Young people and theater aficionados knew it, but not so much the usual live-theater demographics. Once the buzz got out about how good a show it was -- I actually loved it -- then they sold out. But the (delay) gave the local theaters a chance to sell tickets to our regular seasons without the money vacuum-cleaner effect of 'Lion King' (in 2007)."

He added that audience familiarity is essential to a successful show.

"We know that the fall musicals with Mr. Bright will always be popular -- with the caveat that they still must be shows that the audience is familiar with. In our brief history we have only had four major shows do poorly: 'Noises Off,' 'Big River,' 'Pajama Game' and 'Once on This Island.' Feedback indicates the major problem was audience unfamiliarity. The quality was uniformly good."

Myers at Kennedy Theatre agreed theatergoers are more cautious with their spending and "wait until they hear about a show before buying a ticket."

"Audiences used to be more game to try anything that was on the season and would commit in advance," he said. "Season tickets are not nearly as popular now as they once were.

"We have a captive market in UH-Manoa students who can attend at very low prices and do seem to come out and try many of our offerings, especially edgier things like our Late Night Theatre program. The community audience is fickle. Last season we did a dance program, 'Taiko Drum and Dance,' that featured taiko drums at its core, and it sold out in advance and was the talk of the town. We could have added many more performances. We haven't had such demand for a dance program in many years. So you just never know what it going to tickle people's fancies."

SO DOES the need to generate ticket sales and market share push theater groups to become edgier or play it safe and recycle proven favorites? A look at the 2013-2014 schedule suggests a willingness to stray from familiar fare.

Nemoto, founder and president of The Actors' Group, reports that thanks to "a small core of staunch supporters who have hung in with us through the good and the bad," the stage company will again be presenting an "eclectic collection of plays -- some classics, some originals, some edgy -- plays that we want to do rather than what we have to do (to survive)."

Rampage says DHT has "been pushing the envelope in the last couple years as we've been doing more contemporary pieces. They have stronger language, they have slightly more risque jokes than they used to just a few years ago ... (but) we're always aware of what the audience wants and is expecting from the theater."

Rampage may have the coming season's biggest decision to make regarding "pushing the envelope" when DHT presents "Show Boat." As written and originally staged on Broadway in 1927, the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical uses the N-word in addressing the issues of race and racism in the American South. The racist term has never been more incendiary than it is now, and it hasn't always been included in politically correct revival productions.

Rampage doesn't want the language to overshadow the show, but also wants to honor the writers' intent.

"It's not that it was shocking (in 1927); it's that it was meant to shock, which I think is different," he said. "When Kern and Hammerstein used the N-word repeatedly, they wanted the audience to know that this is not a fluff piece, it is dealing with important issues.

"They were being cutting-edge at the time -- and they were making a statement about miscegenation, about bigotry. Do I water that down because it contains the N-word, or do I do it the way they intended? It makes it much more hard-hitting and contemporary, and reminds you that it is not just an old valentine of a show."

Rampage said he is "probably going to do it as written."

DIAMOND HEAD THEATRE

520 Makapuu Ave., 733-0274; www.diamondheadtheatre.com

--"Cabaret": The ever-popular John Kander and Fred Ebb musical about love and death in the decadent cabaret scene of early Nazi Berlin. Sept. 27-Oct. 13

--"Elf": A man raised by Santa's elves at the North Pole teaches New York the true meaning of Christmas. Dec. 6-22

--"Stepping Out": A comedy about perseverance and friendship in which eight bumbling amateur tap dancers from disparate backgrounds and with different motivations must overcome personal problems while preparing for a performance. Jan. 31-Feb. 16

--"Show Boat": The Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical tale of love and racism that revolutionized Broadway when it debuted in 1927. March 28-April 13

--"Catch Me if You Can": A teenage con man leads a fabulous life until he is apprehended. May 23-June 8

--Monty Python's 'Spamalot'": "Lovingly ripped off from" the 1975 film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," this comedy includes spoofs of well-known Broadway musicals. July 18-Aug. 3

DISNEY THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS

Blaisdell Concert Hall, 593-9468 (group sales), 800-745-3000 (single-ticket sales);

www.ticketmaster.com and www.lionking.com

--"Disney The Lion King": This groundbreaking production, based on the 1994 animated film with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice about lions, hyenas and the "Circle of Life," returns for a hana hou engagement. Jan. 14-March 9

HAWAII PACIFIC UNIVERSITY

45-045 Kamehameha Highway

375-1282; www.hpu.edu/theatre

--"Tartuffe": French playwright Moliere's classic satire of religious hypocrisy, featuring a wily opportunist and swindler who plots to defraud a wealthy aristocrat. Nov. 8-Dec 8

--Spring production to be announced, April 8-May 4

HAWAII OPERA THEATRE

Blaisdell Concert Hall

596-7858; www.hawaiiopera.org

--"Turandot": In one of Puccini's best known operas, a mysterious suitor puts his life on the line to win the hand of an imperious princess in ancient China. Oct. 11, 13 and 15.

--"Carmina Burana" and "I Pagliacci": The classic Leoncavallo tale of a cuckolded clown is paired with a modern scenic cantata based on poems from medieval Italy. March 28 and 30, and April 1

--"The Mikado": Gilbert & Sullivan's famed comic opera about life, love, conspiracy and a foiled execution in a mythic version of ancient Japan. June 13-15 and 20-22.

HAWAII SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

The ARTS at Marks Garage

1159 Nuuanu Ave.

www.hawaiishakes.org

--"Troilus and Cressida": Festival co-founder R. Kevin Garcia Doyle directs Shakespeare's tragicomedy on the Trojan War. Ends today

--"Timon of Athens": Eleanor Svaton and festival co-founder Tony Pisculli share directing duties in presenting a "gender-blind" version of Shakespeare's tale of conspicuous consumption, heartbreak and revenge in ancient Greece. Aug. 9-18

--"As You Like It": The festival completes its presentation of every play in the canon with one of the Bard's best-known

romantic comedies. Aug. 23-Sept. 1

HAWAII THEATRE

1159 Nuuanu Ave.

528-0506; www.hawaiitheatre.com

--"I Wish ... Wishing Tales from Around the World": "Be careful what you wish for" is the theme as 'Ohi'a Productions presents musical versions of short stories from China, Hungary and India. Sept. 21.

--"The Mikado": Hawaii Opera Theatre's Opera Express presents a one-act version of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic comic operetta. Nov. 6

--"Hansel and Gretel: The Real Story": A unique twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale. March 8-9

--"Much Ado about Nothing": High school actors take on the challenge posed by Shakespeare's witty dialogue in this popular comedy. April 25-26

HONOLULU THEATRE FOR YOUTH

Tenney Theatre,

229 Queen Emma Square

839-9885; www.htyweb.org

--"A Korean Cinderella": Honolulu actor/playwright Alvin Chan rewrites the classic European-American fairy tale as a Korean folk tale with a touch of K-pop. Aug. 23-Sept. 21

--"Lono's Journey": HTY celebrates the Hawaiian New Year by bringing new life to old artifacts with Hawaiian language, music, dance, sport and puppetry. Oct. 18-Nov. 9

--"Nothing is the Same": The lives of four 11-year-olds are changed forever when the Japanese attack Schofield Barracks on Dec. 7, 1941. Nov. 29-30, Dec. 7 and 14

--"Auntie Martha and the Nene (Goose)": An unexpected visit from a goose changes Auntie Martha's life forever. Jan 10-Feb. 1

--"Peter Rabbit and the Garden": HTY's version of Beatrix Potter's cautionary tale "explores the fine line between curiosity and responsibility." Designed to appeal to a preschool audience. Feb. 22-March 8

--"Icarus Fights the Minotaur": Hawaii playwright Yokanaan Kearns uses characters from several stories from ancient Greece in his version of the story of the boy who flew too close to the sun. Feb. 21-March 8

--"Grinds": A "musical romp" through the subject of food in Hawaii. Why do we eat what we eat? Where do we grow what we eat? Why does that even matter? April 4-May 10

KUMU KAHUA

46 Merchant St.

536-4441; www.kumukahua.org

--"Will the Real Charlie Chan Please Stand Up?": The fictional Charlie Chan and the real-life detective he was modeled after join forces to fight crime in Honolulu. Aug. 22-Sept. 22

--"Flowers of Hawai'i": Lee Cataluna explores family relationships with 10 "playlets." Nov. 7-Dec. 8

--"Moa a Mo'i": Legends of Umi, the "peasant prince," as retold by Jean Charlot. Jan. 23-Feb. 23

--"Cockadoodledoo": Playwright Eric Yokomori's surrealistic tale about a chunk from a meteor that lands in a farmer's chicken coop, changing everything, including the chickens and his friend Ziggy. Other odd characters include an evil ventriloquist, a masochistic postman, a mercenary wannabe, Zorro and God. March 27-April 27

--"Koi, Like the Fish": An ailing man can no longer live alone, but the alternative doesn't make him happy. May 29-June 29

MANOA VALLEY THEATRE

2833 E. Manoa Road

988-6131; www.manoavalleytheatre.com

--"The Toxic Avenger": Melvin Ferd III is dumped in a vat of radioactive toxic waste and emerges "a seven-foot mutant freak with superhuman strength" determined to "save New Jersey, end global warming, and woo the blind librarian" in his hometown. Sept. 12-29

--"Chinglish": An American businessman who hopes to establish his family's sign-making business in China discovers that what is lost and found in translation has a lot more to say about cross-cultural errors than simple miscommunication. Nov. 14-Dec. 1

--"The Odd Couple": Messy Olive Madison and neat freak Florence Unger move in together after their respective marriages fail. Jan. 16-Feb. 2

--"Rent": The popular rock musical follows impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York's Lower East Side during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. March 13-30

--"Clybourne Park": A Pulitzer Prize-winning prequel and sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, "A Raisin in the Sun." May 22-June 8

--"Smokey Joe's Cafe": The hits of Top 40 songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are the fodder for this jukebox musical. July 3-20

PALIKU THEATRE

Windward Community College, 45-720 Keaahala Road, 235-7310; www.etickethawaii.com

--"Les Miserables": Tom Holowach and Ron Bright present their version of the international mega-hit about love, honor, life, death and revolution in 19th-century France. Sept. 20-Oct. 20

--Spring production to be announced.

THE ACTORS' GROUP

Dole Cannery Square

722-6941; www.taghawaii.net

--"Outage": An all-night blackout forces a college professor to "face the fragility of her fractured life" with her ex-husband and her current partner. Aug. 9-Sept. 1

--"The World of Jackie Claxton": TAG founder Eric Nemoto and island filmmaker Jeff Katts tell the story of a woman "whose desire to discover her true identity will take her to hell and back." Aug. 12-14 and 19-21

--Young Playwrights Festival: Featuring works by students in grades 6 through 12. Sept. 5-8

--"The Heiress": A 1947-vintage drama about romance and fortune hunting in New York. Oct. 11-Nov. 3

--"Hollywood Arms": The "funny and moving" story of three generations of women living on welfare one block north of Hollywood Boulevard. Dec. 6-29

--"Radio Golf": TAG continues its annual presentation of plays from August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" with this story of an ambitious entrepreneur who wants to be the first African-American mayor of Pittsburgh. Jan. 31-Feb. 23

--"Red": A master abstract expressionist artist discovers that his crowning achievement could also be his undoing. March 28-April 20

--"Glengarry Glen Ross": David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about foul-mouthed salesmen who will stop at nothing to close a deal and sabotage their colleagues. May 23-June 15

--"Resistance!": An escaped slave challenges the Fugitive Slave Act in 19th century Pennsylvania. July 11- Aug. 3

UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII

956-7655; www.eticketawaii.com

Kennedy Theatre/Main Stage

--"Big Love": Theater professor Ian Belton directs a modern take on "The Suppliants" by Aeschylus, "the oldest Western play known to wo/mankind." Sept. 27-28, Oct. 3-6

--"Lady Mu and the Yang Family Generals": The conflicts between personal ethics and familial and national duty, and the power of youthful exuberance versus the wisdom of age, are the themes of this Jing Ju (Beijing Opera) performed in English. Feb. 20-23 and Feb. 27-March 2

--"The Very Persistent Gaspers of Frig": What do you do when hundreds of little orange monsters shriek with delight at the sight of your family goat? A musical based on the novel by George Saunders. April 11-12 and 18-20

Kennedy Theatre/Earle Ernst Lab Theatre

--"The Wild Party": A "gritty musical" set in the age of Prohibition, based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March. Oct. 23-27

--"Queens of the Night": An original cross-cultural play inspired by a double murder in 1933. Nov 16-17 and 22-23

--"very still & hard to see": An architect encounters a shape-shifting demon while building a hotel and makes a deal that will shape the hotel and the people who stay there. March 12-15

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