REVIEW: ‘Te Moana Nui’ elevates Tihati’s Polynesian legacy
“Te Moana Nui,” Tihati Productions’ exquisite flagship Waikiki show, brings authentic Hawaiiana to a new home, the Grand Ballroom of the Pacific Beach Hotel.
It heralds a major chapter in the changing and expanding Tihati ‘ohana legacy in Waikiki over the past four decades. It’s the first vehicle — and the fourth Tihati entity on Oahu — overseen by the next-generation show creators, Misty Tufono and Afatia Thompson, the daughter and the son of pioneering Tihati founders Jack and Cha Thompson.
This is a vivid and vibrant postcard of the future of the Tihati brand, teeming with company’s longstanding trademark trinity of show production: entertainment, education and elevation.
“Te Moana Nui” — which loosely translates to “the vast ocean” — is high on history and sizzling with showmanship, with Tufono’s writing and choreographic skills channeling and unlocking traditional tales in a smooth, almost conversational script, framed with her brother Thompson’s flair for experimentation with modern elements including high-definition LED video to enhance the storytelling. He also composed the show’s title song.
The show explores the storied history, the colorful people, and the authentic costumes of the fertile South Seas. Images of the vast oceans and verdant islands provide the backdrop of seafaring voyagers who share tales and traditions of the Polynesian culture, the serious alternating with the comic, the simple with the spectacular, the intimate with the lavish.
Throughout, it upholds the rules of theater to keep it flowing, the secret of education to keep it valid and real, and the edginess of innovation to raise the bar on this genre of Polynesian syncopation and exposition.
This is not a typical luau show. The Samoan fire knife dance is the nightcap, as always, but there is uncompromising care to preserve the stories of a generation past with drumbeats, guitars and chorale singing, which elevates “Te Moana Nui” to folklorico levels. As a fixture previously under the Starwood/Sheraton umbrella — before relocating to the Pacific Beach located in a sector of Waikiki not previously known for a visitor-oriented attraction — Tihati is planting new seeds on fertile new grounds.
The transition from the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel’s Ainahau Ballroom, where the Tihati spectacle had been anchored for three decades, succeeds though the Pacific Beach only recently has realized that a sleeping giant is under its roof. Challenged to retain tradition but also reach out for new paths, both the younger Thompson offspring as well as the hotel — which hasn’t quite grasped the potential in its new tenant — are jockeying for market share. The show has been running for two months, with scanty advertising to build visibility and accessibility. On-premise posters aside, wholesalers are still weighing options to elevate buy-and-sell options to the changing flock of Mainland and foreign clientele hungry for a taste of Polynesia while on Oahu.
Surely, this is the go-to show if you have out-of-town visitors. Or just go, for a cultural night out.
With an ensemble of alluring women and athletic men who sing and dance with ease and flair, it’s like watching a National Geographic spectacle leaping to life with visuals that pan the mountains and seas. The artistry is vibrant and the panorama resonates with the rhythms and rhetoric of the peoples of Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Maori New Zealand, Samoa and Tahiti. The drumming defines heartbeat and spirit; a musical ensemble provides instrumentation and sweet harmonies; but the performers also vocalize and move with impeccable precision and exhilarating passion.
And you don’t need a passport to navigate this Pacific treasure.
The opening otea features dancers on a double-hulled canoe, journeying from Raiatea to Hawaii. The climactic Samoan siva ahi (fire knife dance) features Mikaele Oloia, a four-time fire dance winner, whose feats bring spectators to their feet with roaring approval.
In-between, the numbers range from a solemn Fijian dance called the Meke, about a high chief venturing a journey into the unknown, to a Maori sequence honoring seagoers savvy about canoe-building, ocean currents, and reading the “maps” provided by stars. And yes, the women whirl Maori poi balls and the gents engage in tongue-wagging gyrations of the spirited warrior.
The popular Samoan maulu‘ulu (women’s dance) and siva fa‘ataupati (men’s slap dance) are party-hearty and provoke fun, while the taualuga (dance of the virgin princess) is celebratory with hopes for a fruitful life in a new world, with Eden Annendale as the centerpiece.
A Waikiki stop assembles hapa haole songs in a nostalgic look at the distant past, with hula soloist Nicole Thompson exuding dreamy sweetness. The show’s title song emerges in the dance of Tahiti, the ahuroa, where a woman’s attributes are compared to the syncopation of the rolling waves, with lithe Heather Ruth as the soloist.
Micah Tiedemann, a versatile dancer, doubles as a conversational emcee; he also designed and created many of the show’s lavish and vivid costumes with a palate boasting more hues than a rainbow.
There are four staging areas: the central mainstage, two auxiliary platforms boasting sailboats to the left and right, and a middle spot front and center. This crossfire movement provides variety, challenging viewers to remain alert on where the action might be for solo dancing or a brief monologue setting up a centerstage moment.
Arrive early, and participate in pre-show festivities ranging from storytelling to stamping kapa to make bookmarks, from floral crafts to Polynesian tattooing.
This is Tihati’s fourth Oahu endeavor — others are at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and most recently the Marriott resort at Ko Olina — which makes the company the most prolific of local show producers.
‘TE MOANA NUI’
Where: Grand Ballroom, Pacific Beach Hotel
When: Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays
Time: Pre-show festivities from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., buffet service from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; show at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Dinner show package, includes a bountiful prime rib buffet feast with one Mai Tai or soft drink: adults (13 and older), $115; children (5-12) , $82; infants (4 and under), free; cocktails-only includes two standard drinks or one exotic (fruit punch for children):
adults (13 and older), $68; children (5 to 12), $50.