By Wayne Harada
Welcome back, Jim Nabors and Friends. You were missed.
The TV and film star’s “Merry Christmas With Friends and Nabors,” which returned last night to the Hawai’i Theatre, officially opened Honolulu’s holiday season after a two-year hiatus. The show repeats tonight and tomorrow afternoon.
It was a cheerful homecoming and a remembrance of happy times Nabors and crew shared in a celebratory 10 year run ...before he “retired.”
“It’s nice to be back,” said Nabors, with eyes as wide as a child’s on Christmas morn, heart as big as Santa’s toy bag, enthusiasm and energy as high as elves working on Christmas Eve.
Indeed. It was a reunion, of family and of tradition.
Karen Keawehawai’i was there, more faux floral finery in her hair than ever, funny and serious, too, depending on the tune.
Emma Veary was back, too — with voice a pitch or two lower, but notes full and robust.
Jimmy Borges was dapper as usual, adding a pinch of jazz to his holiday finery, defining the element of cool.
Phillip Huber & the Huber Marionettes, the lone out-of-town act with history with Nabors on the Mainland, were remarkably agile and inventive; he manipulated, with uncanny ease and wonderment, his svelte ice skater, his delightfully ditzy pigtailed chanteuse and that slightly rotund and rousing hot mama jazzster.
Guy Merola, who worked his way up from ensemble to front-and-center soloist in recent years, was the newbie who quickly found his pace and place in the family circle.
And Matt Catingub —black hair and ponytail now history, replaced by chic, short hair, peppered with gray — conducted the Hawaii Theatre Orchestra with his usual flair. And vocalized, too, of course.
Nabors stuck to tradition, knowing folks want to hear what they’ve treasured for years. Familiarity works in his camp.
So there were solos (his “White Christmas” and “Panis Angelicus,” Keawehawai’i’s “Mary Did You Know”), duets (his “Silent Night” in English, accompanied by Emma Veary’s Hawaiian counterpoint, plus his and Borges’ “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth”), and even community singing (a finale with the soloists on stage, inviting spectators to chime in on “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night” and “Mele Kalikimaka”).
With Nabors fronting “O Holy Night,” there was subdued singing in the house, respectful of his booming voice — followed by a standing ovation when he was pau. Amen!
Company endeavors prevailed, too, including production numbers with the joyous John Rampage-directed Diamond Head Shooting Stars, a cast regular for years (though with bright new charms every season), with a stunning curtain-opener, “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a number that once featured Nabors high-kicking with the kids. Hey, he’ll be 80 next summer, and he leaves the strenuous elements to the young and spirited.
Newcomers to the 'ohana provided harmonies and hula —La Pietra Select Choir (directed by Shari Lynn, by the way), reinvented carols of the season, and Snowbird Bento’s Ka Pa Hula O Kai Lei Lehua (and didn’t the littlest one steal the show?) provided Island culture and animation.
The Hawaii Theatre Ensemble Singers, also new, featured beloved stage and concert troupers, names or faces or voices you’d recognize — Cathy Foy-Mahi (director), Lea Wods Almanza, George Benavente, Katie Doyle, Tricia Marciel, Matt Pennaz, Elitei Tatufu and Jimi Wheeler. Classy and theatrical.
On an emotional note, the revival shows are being dedicated to the late Elissa Josephson, the veteran publicist who helped pump this production in its initial 10-year run at the Hawai'i Theatre. From the stage and in a playbill announcement, the show pays homage to her dedication and loving memory.
Burton White, who doubled as show director and executive director, had the task of moving his cast on and off stage (and in the aisles, in some instances) and creating the aura of yesteryear — simple but brigt sets by Wally White, clean lights by Stephen Clear, crisp sound by Mike Brown — to wrap the package with yuletide goodwill and joy.
You might say that this is the White Christmas spectacle Burton White feared, but ultimately conquered. White even had the somewhat expected snowflake drizzles from the ceiling in the final moments of the show.
Yep, there’s no biz like snow biz. And may the rest of the season be bright and merry.
WITH FRIENDS & NABORS”
7:30 p.m. today (Nov. 28),
2 p.m. tomorrow (Nov. 29)