What: “The Flower of Hawaii”
Where: Stage 777
(1225 W. Belmont Ave.)
When: Through Jul. 14
By M.L. Rantala
For a decade a small Chicago company has been producing operettas, often Chicago and sometimes American premieres. Folks Operetta (previously Chicago Folks Operetta) is now offering “The Flower of Hawaii,” an American premiere of a fun and frolicking piece with music by Paul Abraham and a libretto translated by members of the Folks Operetta team.
This bright and sunny production is packed with charming music and dance, gorgeous and sometimes unusual costumes, and an unbridled sense of fun. The happy ending finds no less than four couples all set for their happily-ever-after curtain fall.
Although packed with characters, the story is easy to follow. Set in Hawaii in the 1920s, Prince Lilo-Taro and Princess Laia — engaged to each other as children — both return to the American territory. The princess arrives in disguise, posing as the famous French singer Suzanne Provence. The American governor hopes to arrange a marriage between the prince and his niece Bessie, but Buffy, the governor’s assistant, fancies Bessie as well. During her ocean journey to Hawaii, the princess has fallen in love with Captain Stone, yet finds herself drawn to the prince who finds that he has fallen in love with the woman to whom he was affianced as a child. As part of her disguise, the princess is traveling with Jimmy Fox, an American singer who is in love with the Laia’s look-alike, Suzanne Provence. His affection for the French singer is challenged when he meets the young Hawaiian woman Raka.
By the end of Act III, when all the characters have toodled over to Monte Carlo, happiness breaks out for all, and love wins the day.
Folks Operetta have created a production bursting with enthusiasm, joy, and a lot of silliness. There are lots of laughs and lots of love, all distributed throughout a work full of beautiful songs and a wide variety of dance styles. You’ll be humming your way home with a spring in your step.
“The Flower of Hawaii” stars Filipino-American Rodell Rosel as Hawaiian Prince Lilo-Taro. Rosel is an opera singer with international experience and is known for his portrayals of Mime (“Siegfried”), Monostatos (“The Magic Flute”), and Goro (“Madama Butterfly”). The first two are particularly hideous villains while the third is a ridiculous, comic character. So it was a joy to see this talented singer unleashed as a romantic hero. Rosel’s tenor is plush and pliant and he brings a dignity and grace to the prince, in both his singing and acting. Rosel makes the character’s old-fashioned nobility stand out in a work full of lovable oddballs and rich and famous folk who take their power for granted. When Rosel sings of love, the yearning and passion simmer slowly before boiling over in dramatic excitement. The man who has made a career out of monsters and peculiars shows his tremendous range in creating a magnificently charming prince.
Marisa Buchheit as Laia offers a fresh and marvelously sung portrait of a princess. The character is meant to be a beauty and this 2014 Miss Illinois fits the bill. She looks gorgeous in her Jazz Age gowns and moves with regal simplicity. In the final Act she does double-duty as the operetta just happens to make the princess and the French chanteuse look-alikes.
The rest of the cast is also fine. Ryan Trent Oldham is bursting with energy as Jimmy Fox and William Roberts is a madcap and endearing Buffy. Angela Yu is perky and effervescent as the clever and lovely Hawaiian Raka. Captain Stone is infused with both power and restraint by the splendid Nicholas Pulikowski. Teaira Burge is spunky as Bessie, the daughter of the governor. The always-hilarious Rose Guccione is a hoot as the gender-bender Perroquet, a waiter of many talents in Monte Carlo while Jerry Miller captures the essence of colonial power as the non-singing American governor of Hawaii.
The dancing is not only loads of fun, but represents a wide variety of styles. At one moment couples may be waltzing across the stage and at another, we are offered subtle and graceful authentic Hawaiian hand and arm movements. Multiple choreographers have been employed to embrace the many types of dance involved.
Director Amy Hutchison directs the troupe with a steady hand. She is careful not to treat the Hawaiian characters or scenes as exotic curiosities, but as people as fully equal and interesting as their American and European counterparts. The action moves along at a pleasing and brisk pace, and Hutchison has made it easy to keep track of all the little love stories and all the would-be couples.
Folks Operetta were keen to employ careful casting. Hutchison told the Herald, “It was essential to bring together artists with appropriate cultural perspectives to create our American adaptation for today’s audiences, to appropriately excise remnants of racism and exoticism from the original 1931 German libretto, as well as to respectfully celebrate the Hawaiian culture the show’s main characters seek to preserve in the plot. For casting, we reached out to specific artists and also invited artists of color and especially artists of Hawaiian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander heritage to audition in casting notices. I valued the collaboration with our diverse cast and artistic team; we made important script and staging decisions based on input from everyone.”
Conductor Anthony Barrese presides over a 19-piece orchestra that provides glorious sound throughout. The music from the pit (actually behind and to the side of the players) is alluring and Barrese draws every ounce of musical drama and joy from the score. The Hawaiian guitar adds a pleasing dimension, and the syncopated jazz tunes will find you tapping your feet.
Patti Roeder costumes the players wonderfully, from the delicious gowns of the princess to the funny suspenders on the very tall Roberts or the sporty cane for Oldham.
As excellent and entertaining this production is, there are some obvious flaws. Much of the humor is on the silly side and the work could do with more wit in the spoken parts as well as the occasional touch of political humor. And the use of a woman dressed as a man in Monte Carlo simply screams for better gender humor.
“The Flower of Hawaii” represents one brick in the road between opera and musical theater, and for anyone interested in either of those musical forms or in operetta itself, this is a rarity not to be missed.