TIMELESS Requires More Time
Historical fiction is often defined as a story whose plot “takes place in a setting located in the past.” It’s a popular genre, as the allure of telling a story set in the past where history was being made and written is undeniable. William Shakespeare had his history plays, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg directed Pocahontas, Wu Cheng’en wrote Journey to the West, and Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote HAMILTON. The list goes on and on, and adding to that list is A TIMELESS PRINCESS, written and produced by Denny Miyasato, with direction by Michael Ng. An original musical and a world premiere, it is running at Mamiya Theatre through July 21.
A TIMELESS PRINCESS takes place during the years of 2011 and 1893-1897. The production begins in 1893, where the Crown Princess Kaʻiulani (Ciana Pelekai), is being groomed by her lady-in-waiting Olivia (Cathy Foy). Kaʻiulani excitedly tells Olivia about a soldier she met that afternoon, and Olivia is trying to get her ready for a portrait. Olivia then lets her wear a royal pendant surrounded by rubies, an heirloom passed down in the family through the years. She tells her the pendant, which came from her ancestors, will protect her from harm and that whoever sets their eyes on it will be mesmerized and be obsessed with holding it. She is told to return it when she is done using it. As the photographer gets ready to take his shot, Kaʻiulani yells out, “James!”
We cut to the year 2011, a U.S. Marines Sergeant, James Landsfield (Jeremiah Ulufanua) is taking a tour with one of his company mates at 'Iolani Palace. There, amidst protests by kānaka maoli (native Hawaiians) against gentrification, over-development, and getting priced out of the housing market, Landsfield finds the portrait of Princess Kaʻiulani from the beginning. Entranced by either the beauty of the princess or the royal pendant she was wearing, Landsfield lingers on the portrait until he is caught by a janitor, Kimo K. (Matthew Pedersen). The janitor is actually a minor deity, and he explains that the royal pendant was only seen in this portrait, and never accounted for ever again. Kimo deduces Landsfield would love to meet Kaʻiulani, and thus arranges a deal: he will send Landsfield back in time to meet Kaʻiulani, and in return he only has to bring the pendant back home with him. There is a special time travel potion he concocted (it took two lifetimes to create), and when he drinks the first half, he will be transported back to 1893. When he drinks the other half, he will come back to 2011. He is told to blend in, play the part of a Marine from 1893, and above all Landsfield is not to kiss the Princess under any circumstances. Thus, with a quick costume change and a swig of the time potion, Landsfield ends up in 1893.
1893- Queen Liliʻuokalani (Jade Stice) was recently overthrown, and Princess Kaʻiulani is returning from appealing to the government and press of the United States, especially President Grover Cleveland. There, she meets Landsfield, and both of their lives are changed forever.
A TIMELESS PRINCESS is a problematic production; at best, it is an overly sentimental script fraught with excessive clichés, and at worst it is a musical that is both revisionist and tone-deaf in its execution.
The script does not adhere to its own rules (why does kissing Kaʻiulani the first time send Landsfield back, but the next three are allowed to be taken at leisure before a metaphorical staircase?), has severe tonal issues (Kaʻiulani is robbed of her pendant at knife point in a ball, where no one bats an eye to stop the culprit, then to comfort a distraught and frightened Kaʻiulani Landsfield convinces her to dance with him instead of pursing the culprits, and the scheme to get the pendant back involves objectifying a Hawaiian woman and Scooby-Doo-esque “gotcha” antics), and treats the many plights of the Hawaiian people as something that can be saved by a pendant. After supposedly retrieving the pendant that started this production, it disappears from Landsfield’s pockets. Hand waving this disappearance, Kimo explains that Landsfield, a U.S. Marine, single-handedly changed history for Hawaiʻi for the better, and that the Hawaiian people are now at peace. What changed? Why were the Hawaiian people at peace because a pendan got saved? The implication is that through a U.S. soldier’s love and sacrifice, things are right, and is an appalling and unearned statement considering the script is painted against the backdrop of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
The lyrics and music by Miyasato and arrangements by Woody Pak felt like it was sampled from at least three or four different albums. The styles and genres of the song switch wildly, letting no consistent "music of the production” ring through. There is also frequent clashes with Miyasato’s lyrics and with the arrangements; many of the lyrics are bent to fit the grandiose scoring, and it leads to occasional awkward deliveries and many forced rhymes and rhythms. Not to mention, Miyasato’s own lyrics are very pedestrian and do not flow well with the script he interjects between the pieces. During a rally, “me oh, my oh” is not something modern locals, especially kānaka maoli, say; after plotting to steal Kaʻiulani’s pendant, the international businessmen have a rousing number where they celebrate being born with “serendipity.” After telling Landsfield he has changed Hawaiʻi for the better, the finale song’s refrain goes, “Yesterday was all designed/Time has paved the way/Tomorrow’s legacy will be in the words of our youth today/For they will be the ones to tell the story/Any they will immerse within its glory.” The verses do not clarify the refrain at all. What does this mean? What is the message that this production is trying to convey?
Fortunately, the cast members do their best to weather the script and lyrics, delivering mostly solid performances. Pelekai as Kaʻiulani is fittingly regal, disciplined, and vulnerable, leading the audience to believe this specific rendition of Princess Kaʻiulani is able to be swept off her feet by a modern day soldier and fall in love with him over the course of a day. Pelekai’s songs are a highlight as her voice soars, and a memorable moment of the production lies in her final solo number, “Kuʻu Aloha.” Unfortunately, her opposite in the production does not reach her as Ulufauna as Landsfield does not wield the emotional range and vulnerability that Pelekai meets him with, scene after scene. Ulufauna’s singing presence is mostly absent during his numbers, as it sounds like he mostly sings with trepidation in his voice. Stice’s Liliʻuokalani is powerful, proclaiming her stepping down from the throne during a charged hula/modern dance piece. In the following scene, she comforts Kaʻiulani as she laments her position in the beautifully delivered piece “Queen’s Anthem.”
The rest of the ensemble supports and shapes the production, bringing the fictitious world to life. They all do their roles well enough in telling the story, and another highlight involved the rally of protesters erupting in a spirited recanting of the “I Ku Mau Mau” chant as they walked down the aisles of Mamiya Theatre.
Ng’s direction was wonderful to see, creating captivating stage images that will long stay with you. His uses of freezing certain actors onstage is a beautiful convention to witness, further creating more dynamic plateaus throughout the night. One such instance is when Landsfield and Kaʻiulani are dancing, and all of the ballroom dancers that were with them previously are frozen upstage, keeping the grandeur and color of the ball while muting it because of how the evening turned out.
The design team Ng had alongside him also brought their A-game to the stage. Jonathan Clarke Sypert’s choreography was sharp and well delivered, fitting the various styles of music the show runs through; as Kumu Hula, Blaine Kamalani Kia choreographs the few hula pieces in the production, and Sypert’s work pairs well with his traditional hula. James Corry was doing triple duty as costume designer, hair and set designer, and scenic artist, and delivered in all three respects. The costumes were beautifully made, with an amazing eye to detail and an especially keen eye on glamour when designing the beautiful dresses worn by the women of the show. His set and painting pairs well with Larry Racoma’s projection design, as their combined efforts brought the setting of Honolulu Harbor and the interiors of ʻIolani Palace to life. John Cummings III’s prop design flows well with the technical design of the show- functional and detail oriented.
There is nothing wrong with historical fiction, many of our beloved stories and films are steeped there, in time travel, or both. There is something to be said when a play manages to sing about the plights of an indigenous race and does not end up honoring any of that in its spine. There is a reason why there was a backlash to Disney’s Pocahontas in 1996, and it was primarily because it sanitized the true story in favor of a romance and white savior plot. Dangerous parallels from that and other media like it run through A TIMELESS PRINCESS.
There were moments of brilliance and light throughout the evening. A lot of love, care, and work had gone into this production, and it reflects in its spectacle. These glints of truth and beauty are unfortunately upstaged and shadowed by a music and book that need more time to be fleshed out. Through more research and workshopping, this could be a strong piece that speaks to the message emblazoned on the album cover, “the queen stood down in order for all to stand.” This could be an actual romance that takes the time to develop organically, instead of relying on time and actors’ chemistry to raise the stakes and fall in love.
Perhaps one day, it will.
A TIMELESS PRINCESS is showing at Mamiya Theatre through July 21. For tickets, click this link.