By Wayne Harada
Roni Benise is a long-haired, made-for-modeling dude who has a passion for guitar. Flamenco guitar.
He has passion for his instrument and an artist’s posture in positioning himself as a cultural icon.
He surrounds himself with pals who share his love and conviction for sharing the moods and manners of the tango, the flamenco, the salsa and other exotic strains.
And in “Nights of Fire!,” his foray into the Waikiki mainstream, he brings visual and aural flair and formidable artistry and syncopation to the late slot at the Magic of Polynesia Showroom at the Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachomber Hotel.
But some questions arise:
• Can Benise (he utilizes the single name) weather the rough seas ahead, as he proceeds to stage a unique show of his liking and talent?
• Who is his target audience? Locals? Visitors? Young? Seniors?
• Does his investors have deep pockets to weather the rigorous process of securing tour groups to fill seats for a late-curtain endeavor (his shows begin at 9:30 p.m., following John Hirokawa’s “Magic of Polynesia” spectacle.
• On the heels of a similarly exquisite show — Lani Misalucha’s, which ran for eight of the 12 months projected, overcome by the challenges of wooing ongoing crowds — can Benise beat the odds and jump over the usual hurdles of a newcomer on the show block?
This is a four-walling engagement that presents challenges for any trouper along the Kalakaua Avenue strip. Without tour groups, an essential component of nightlife action in Waikiki, half-filled houses will be common. The thing is, Benise is worth seeing and hearing and once you’re in your seat, you’ll be amazed at the scope of his music and the vision of his theatrics.
Each segment of his show begins with on-location intros, filmed in ports linked to his music. Venice. Amsterdam. Paris. India. Spain.
So the evening is part travelogue, with heavy emphasis on hypnotic dances, so there are moments so agile and amazing, you think you’re watching “Dancing With the Stars” with dance moves that echo the precision and grandeur in the ballroom realm.
Now, there’s a worthy clientele of spectators: the ballroom crowd. But at 9:30 p.m.? A 4 p.m. matinee offering on, say, a Sunday, might attract the very market that would cheer and respond to the Latin sounds and expressive dances.
Benise arrives here with appearances on “Dancing With the Stars” and a PBS special. He’s played Las Vegas, which has far more visitors than Hawaii and doubtlessly an international crowd that would gravitate to this kind of polished show. But Vegas is a town that doesn’t sleep; what plays in Vegas doesn’t necessary play elsewhere, at least not with ease.
Benise — say it this way, buh-ness-see — brings an aura of mystery with his mastery, with a sexy, smoldering presence beneath his open-collar shirt and tight trousers. He cuddles and cradles his guitar that might be set hearts a-fluttering, and yes, the women shriek and shout and send off choruses of amour with regularity.
He gets ample and eloquent support from a band of musicians who started on the streets of San Francisco, as he did, and a couple of gents provide the male partners for the chorus of six women dancers. A fiddler on the loose, one Luciana, is a gem of a find — her virtuoso violin generously plays off his strums and pounces on and off the stage.
“Besame Mucho” will be a familiar anthem; ditto, a smoking of a version of “Hotel California,” vocally and musically, that expands the Benise boundaries beyond the flamenco/tango/salsa mode. Indeed, it helps to insert a “commercial” entity, so why not toss in a Gloria Estefan rouser like “Do the Conga” for more familiar sass and sizzle? Familiarity would bring the excursion closer to home.
That said, there’s an Island segment, which apparently has been tapped for tweaking, where the voice of the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is played against vintage video of Bruddah Iz augmented by live vocals by the cast — and clearly, Iz is not singing on the clip, an attempt to Hawaiian the Benise excursion. (There is no archival of Iz actually singing his global “Over the Rainbow” hit in existence). Understand the Mountain Apple Company, which monitors the licensing of all things Iz, including music, signed off on the use here, and while it gives Benise brownie points for acknowledging the most prominent of local legends in contemporary times, the effort comes off a tad weak, and yes, gratuitous. Is this really vital without compromising his Latino artistry? You decide.
Surely, Benise is worth seeing, worth applauding, worth supporting. His success will depend on marketing his talent in spite of the challenges in the showroom. The magic show was moved back an hour, which means that Benise’s curtain time is an hour later now than Misalucha’s 8:30 p.m. start. Resetting the clock for that 8:30 p.m. showtime again would be the first step to generate a foundation
for audience interest.
Only time will tell if “Nights of Fire!” ignites and takes off — but it needs help from various segments of the Waikiki visistor industry, as well as locals who are curious about a stellar musician in search of acclaim and acceptance.
‘BENISE’S NIGHTS OF FIRE!'
9:30 p.m. daily
Magic of Polynesia Showroom, Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachomber Hotel
$55 general, $76 VIP, $97 VIP Producer Circle seating; discounts for kamaaina and military