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Big Island entertainment venues still in flux

Normally at this time of year, most of the Big Island’s performing arts theaters are starting their annual seasons.

But a year-and-a-half into the novel coronavirus pandemic, nothing has returned to normal, leaving venue managers scrambling for alternatives.

Perhaps nothing illustrates that as well as the website for the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center, where the 2019-2020 season events are still posted. In bold type, it says: “There are no upcoming events at this time.”

“I’d love to have a point in time where we could tell you, ‘OK, this is exactly what happens.’ But it’s just not possible. We just don’t know,” Lee Barnette-Dombroski, the center’s manager said last week.

There is one event on the horizon — a performance of “Banyan,” a post-9/11 fantasy by San Francisco-based Filipina-American playwright Jeannie Barroga, which will be streamed online.

“It’s not live,” Barnette-Dombroski said. “We filmed in June, when the (daily case) numbers were low and the indoor gathering numbers were 25. … Everybody was vaccinated.

“The streaming link will be available by Sept. 11.”

The play, directed by Justina Mattos, an assistant professor of drama, was the last project for the theater’s longtime technical director, Rob Abe, who recently retired. It will be available online through Sept. 13.

The Palace Theater in downtown Hilo sold out an 11-performance run of “Beauty and the Beast” before a limited house in July and was gearing up for a fall production of Mel Brooks’ musical “The Producers” — but the current spike in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant stymied those plans.

“We’re ceasing all production for that and putting all rehearsals on hold. We’re looking at spring as a possibility, depending on how everything goes from here,” said Phillips Payson, the theater’s executive director.

Payson said the downtown Hilo art deco theater will continue film programming with limited seating and will continue its “Live From the Empty Palace” music videos every Wednesday on YouTube.

An album made from those performances is nominated for the Na Hoku Hanohano Compilation Album of the Year award.

”It’s on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon — streaming on all those platforms,” Payson said.

“We’re doing some fun film programming for the time being. We’ve got a pirate-themed weekend coming up, ‘Cat Video Fest’ returns next weekend, and through the month of October, we’ll have a good mix of spooky classics — and ‘Rocky Horror,’ of course, on Halloween.

“We’re super limited on our capacity this point, so within the 500-seat theater, there’s a lot of room to space out and socially distance.”

While not technically a venue, the East Hawaii Jazz &Blues Festival, a fundraising event for veterans’ assistance construction projects, has been a popular affair yearly in late October at the Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo until the pandemic forced cancellation of last year’s event.

“We’re not giving up on the East Hawaii Jazz &Blues Festival, because we’ve got a righteous thing going on, and people are jonesing for it,” said Bob Williams, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the festival’s organizer.

“What we had planned to do is to ease back into it lightly, with a little lunch and jazz on the lanai — a smallish-scale thing, socially distanced, outside on the lanai at Nani Mau. Originally, we had planned to do it on Aug. 23, then Sept. 23. Now, it’s still in the offing for the rest of this year. And, hopefully, we can do something where we don’t have to have a lot of numbers to make it pay for itself. So, we’re still in the game on that.

“We can do this with musicians in the state. God knows, we’ve got enough talent in state to do this.”

Prior to the current spike of infections, the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea staged a live performance by Hawaiian music icon Robert Cazimero before a limited audience in early May — a nod to the annual May Day concerts that Cazimero and his late brother, Roland, made a Big Island tradition.

“That was our first return to the theater with an audience,” said Sara Nealy, Kahilu executive director. “And after that, we got an exemption to do other things in the theater with a live audience, and things were looking really good — and we got an increase to a higher capacity level.

“… And then we had to do something unthinkable. We had all these wonderful children who were in rehearsals for ‘Matilda the Musical.’ And four days before we were going to open, we had to shut down everything.

“It was pretty heartbreaking.”

Nealy credited Chuck Gessert, Kahilu’s creative director, for Kahilu TV, a subscription service which brings live performances to the public via digital streaming devices. She called it “a godsend during COVID.”

Kahilu TV has featured performances from Hawaii’s most beloved musical artists and hula halau.

Next is Paula Fuga at 7 p.m. Sept. 19. Her show also will be available as an individual purchase to nonsubscribers. Details are available at

“The Kahilu TV productions are, I think, what have distinguished us from many of our colleagues,” Nealy said. “They might occasionally archive something or put something on YouTube, but we made a huge investment in a professional digital platform, and now we are utilizing it in ways that, I think, not everybody is able to do.”

And Aloha Theatre in Kona is in a “watch and wait” mode, according to Melissa Geiger, the theater’s managing director.

The Kainaliu venue had its own live production of “The Two Musketeers” prior to the surge.

“That was for 75 patrons, a quarter of our capacity,” Geiger said. “We have really good protocols, and we were very comfortable. But for right now, having a live performance doesn’t seem like the most responsible choice we could make.”

That said, the theater has a live production of “Romeo and Juliet” planned for October, and so far, it’s still on the Aloha’s calendar. Most of the roles have been cast, but the theater has put out feelers online for an actor to play Romeo’s friend, Mercutio.

“This surge has been heartbreaking for the staff, because we have so many wonderful things that we want to do to bring the community in,” Geiger said. “… Our board has been very supportive, our community has been very supportive, and we appreciate all of the kind words and messages that have come to us.

“And that’s what keeps us going, day to day.”

Email John Burnett at
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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