HTY Opens With a Chan Favorite


Below the stage, there is a seating area for those who wish to be a little closer to the music and the action. Like the front seats of a concert about to happen, many young ones understood that they were sitting in somewhere special and coveted, though they did not exactly realize how fun and important those seats were. The mix of ethnic backgrounds was eclectic as one would expect from an average Hawaii community, and when asked if they have seen the show before (the production is a remount), no one raised their hands. It is always a treat to see how the “target” audience (Theatre for Young Audiences can theoretically mean theatre for all, etc) receives a Honolulu Theatre for Youth show. These kids may have thought they were sitting front row to a K-Pop spectacle, but they also were introduced to a delicious sampling of a ton of elements of Korean culture, including language, traditional dance, and drumming. Watching the youth take in the culture of a show and see it as a fun experience that they’re low-key learning from too will always warm my heart at any HTY production. This ‘19-’20 season’s A KOREAN CINDERELLA is a treat for those that have and haven’t seen the show, and like any HTY show, a special sharing of a culture to the youth and young at heart of today.

As a part of their Let’s Go! ‘19-’20 season, HTY plans to take audience across Asia, throughout the Pacific, and throughout history. Their first stop is A KOREAN CINDERELLA written by Alvin Chan and directed by Eric Johnson, performing at Tenney Theatre through September 14. About six years ago, if I’m not mistaken, Chan wrote and acted in A KOREAN CINDERELLA to much acclaim .This new iteration feature cast members both present in their original production and totally new for this round as well a couple of new songs, according to Chan.

The Cinderella-type story happens across various lands and cultures, we are told in the first number of the production. Though it may take place in a fictionalized Korea, the beats are close enough that the variations become delightful treats and are often used to showcase more elements of Korean culture. The K-Pop aspect of the production is a stroke of genius on the part of Chan, who used that thread to modernize the Korean fairy tale. Konji Park (Kristy-Li Strand) loves music and loves dancing even more. Unfortunately, she is living with her stepmother (Maki'ilei Ishihara) and stepsister (Junior Tesoro), who put her to work constantly and don’t think of Konji as part of the family. Local K-Pop sensation, The Mayor (Sean-Joseph Choo) is holding a dancing competition to find a dancing partner that he could attend a major dance competition with. The three women wind up getting invitations, but Konji’s stepmother and stepsister leave behind a bevy of chores for her to do so that she isn’t able to make the competition. However, heeding her mother and father’s words and mantras of life, she finds help from the nature and environment around her. Will she be able to dazzle The Mayor with her dance moves? Will her stepmother and stepsister find out about her? There are a lot of fun twists and turns, and while it may seem familiar in some places, Konji’s story is filled with song, dance, and heart that all are sure to enjoy.

Strand is the heart of the production, singing and acting with earnest and winning the hearts of the entire audience with her good nature and charisma. She goes beyond being a caricature, shaping her performance into an honest one with small moments of humanity and reactions sprinkled throughout the show. Around her, playing double and triple (and sometimes quadruple) duty, Choo, Ishihara, and Tesoro are consistently a blast to watch no matter the character. When they are in all white with their sunglasses, they serve as a type of chorus that also doubles as stage movers. Once out of those clothes, they dip into very dynamic characters, each clearly separate from the last, and all equally vibrant as they continue to weave Konji’s tale. Iris Kim’s costume design is remarkable, as the costumes are extremely detailed (and super fly), but also impress with how easy they are able to quick change in and out of said costumes. Very fine work all around.

The rest of Johnson’s creative team fills the house with the energy needed to really make this a spectacle. Brian Shevelenko’s lighting design ramps up the concert energy with flair, and when paired with the scenic design really communicates the homeliness of the Park household. Mary Jo Freshley choreographed the traditional Korean dance and drumming pieces, and Jonathan Clark Sypert choreographed the K-Pop sequences. Together, we are treated to an exquisite taste of Korean dance and art, and it’s so fun to watch alongside Max Louie’s sound and music production. Finally, Sue McLaughlin’s puppets were dazzling, and they were some of my favorite scenes; the way Johnson crafted the arrival and departure of Konji’s mother (another puppet) onstage got an audible reaction (a very loud whoa) out of me!

Not having seen the original, I do not know what changed and what didn’t. However, what I do know is that I heartily enjoyed myself, and the consensus around me on opening night seemed to echo that sentiment. Konji’s story is selfless and empowering, and youth of all ages are sure to enjoy the theatrics at play here at HTY. A KOREAN CINDERELLA is running on Saturdays through September 14, for tickets make sure to click here.