Cornell "Tuffy" Nicholas is producer of "Aloha Live," new at The Deck Waikiki at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel.
The last time Cirque Hawaii was staged in Waikiki, it was at the now-defunct IMAX theater complex — with an insufficient stage or dressing room space and in-your-face angled stadium seating that brought the aerial acrobatics to eye level.
So producer Cornell “Tuffy” Nicholas, who has a background in circus, has been seeking another venue to bring his Cirque du Soleil-style aerial dynamics back to Waikiki. With a tropical Polynesian flavor, of course.
And he’s found one; when “Aloha Live,” Nicholas’ latest show, debuts Friday (April 12) in Waikiki, it will be at the outdoor pool-level deck of the Queen Kapiolani Hotel on Kapahulu Avenue, across the street from the Honolulu Zoo.
It’s a modest but remodeled space, with no ceiling, no walls, no angled theater seats. For the aerial show in Hawaii, it’s somewhat ideal — the sky’s the limit, so to speak.
“I haven’t been this excited about doing a show — we’ve got the greatest view of Diamond Head,” Nicholas said of the environment overlooking the Waikiki vista. “If I had all the money in the world to find a space, it wouldn’t be as beautiful as this one.”
Waikiki’s newest showcase is called The Deck Waikiki at the Queen Kapiolani, which now is equipped with poles and rigging reaching nearly 30 feet in the air, to accommodate several Cirque-type aerial acrobats and illusionists, who will perform to tracks but augmented by Polynesian drumming.
Initially, the presentation — Cirque meets Polynesia in Waikiki is how the show’s being marketed — will be staged three nights a week, expanding with demand. The schedule could evolve into two performances a night, beginning during daylight and ending after the sun sets, the darkness ideal for the fire dance. Modern LED lighting also has been installed in the space.
A cast of 12 has been rehearsing aerial feats with fabric and hoops, and seat designations are being plotted to accommodate about 150 spectators, some in VIP space, others in general seating.
While the pool is a stone’s throw from the stage, water is not a factor in this production. “We would have had to put rigging above the pool,” he said.
Nicholas, whose life has been the traditional tented circus, was a performer himself with his father, mother and two other siblings. “I was raised in the circus,” he said.
His was born on the Sarasota stop of he famed Ringling Brothers Traveling Circus. In it, his father was Count Nicholas, the lead ringmaster, and his mother Alice was a bear trainer. At 3, Nicholas made his first center ring appearance with his father as an honorary ringmaster, and eventually performed and acquired a number of skills in the three-ring tradition.
Later in life, while training for a new act, he was injured — and that led him to become a behind-the-scenes producer.
“While touring with the Moscow Circus at Blaisdell Center one year, some local promoters asked us to do a permanent show in Hawaii,” he said. That led to a lease on the IMAX Theatre, where Cirque Hawaii was born.
When that lease expired, he relocated to the Hyatt on Maui — but always had a Plan B to make a Waikiki comeback.
“I wound up loving Hawaii and Hawaii is my fulltime home now, since August,” he said.
Without an active show, he found life a bit boring — so sought out potential venues, negotiating a deal with the Queen Kapiolani.
“Outdoors. With a view. It doesn’t get more exciting,” he said.
“The good thing is, the rigging stays up — we don’t have to remove it after each show,” said Nicholas.
The production is directed by Mathieu Laplante, formerly with the Cirque du Soleil “O” spectacle at the Bellagio for 10 years in Las Vegas; he also toured with Cirque’s “Saltimbanco” company. Laplante directed the Cirque Hawaii show here in 2005 but continues to work with several Cirque-type tours around the world, including Japan and Singapore.
Tahiti Mana is the choreographer of the Polynesian segments.
At The Deck Waikiki at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel
Pre-show seating from 5 p.m., dinner buffet from 6 p.m., show at 6:45 p.m. three times a week (call for specifics)
Pre-show entertainment includes tableside magic, balloon artist, music and dancing
Show features aerial artistry (hoops, aerial fabric) and Polynesian and Hawaiian songs and dances; Vili the Warrior will lead the haka dance
Deluxe package: $89 adults, $69 children 3 to 11, includes steak dinner buffet, two drink tickets, premier seating, souvenir photo
Standard package: $69 adults, $49 children, includes one drink ticket, general seating
Couple package: $199 adults 21 and older, includes steak dinner buffet, bottle of champagne, souvenir photo
Kamaaina discount (15 per cent) available
Next stop: A big-top circus
Next venture for Cornell “Tuffy” Nicholas: A big-top circus, under the huge tent, beginning in September.
“Circus is my life,” he said.
Nicholas is launching “Aloha Live,” a Cirque Pacific endeavor marrying Cirque du Soleil-inspired aerial dynamics with a measure of Hawaiian and Polynesian entertainment, this Friday (April 12) at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel in Waikiki.
But his true love is that old-fashioned sawdust-on-the-ground circus beneath the traditional big top.
“Part of me remains performer and ringmaster,” he said. “So I’m planning to tour a new show, under the big top, starting in September.”
It will be called the Modern American Circus Under the Big Top, a variation of past circuses he’s toured elsewhere previously.
He is acquiring a modern tent and plans to tour at destinations on Oahu, Maui, Kona and Molokai, beginning in September. Because contracts have not yet been signed, he can’t divulge play dates yet.
Nowadays, touring circuses play under the hardtop — arena enclosures, not tents.
The Modern American Circus will feature classic circus acts — clowns, acrobats, aerial trapeze artists — but no animals.
“It’s the tradition I grew up in,” he said. “And you gotta have circus food, too. Hot dogs. Cotton candy.”
— Wayne Harada