Tops in Waikiki: The Rock-a-Hula Extravaganza

Aloha From Hawaii! BLURT’s Travel Desk Editor heads to Waikiki for plenty of surf ‘n’ turf ‘n’ The King… (photos follow the story – Hashtag: #Elvis). Incidentally, Ms. Gaar has written previously about Hawaii – and Hawaii-related Elvis matters – for the magazine. Check out “Waikiki After Dark” and “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” should you dare.

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

I’ve been a fan of the Rock-a-Hula show in Waikiki since it opened seven years ago, and have seen it in its various incarnations. Initially, this tribute artist show (created by Legends in Concert Las Vegas) simply presented sets by four different impersonators. In 2014, the show boosted the Hawaiian quotient, and made it a more lavish production, with multi-screen projections, decorative sets, and dancers. They’ve recently given the show another facelift, cutting back on the tribute artists, and adding even more of that Hawaiian spirit.

I was offered the opportunity to check out the show again, choosing whatever package I wanted. I eagerly accepted, choosing the top package, the Green Room “Ultimate Experience.”

This is the package to choose if you want to go all out, and get the very best seats in the house (there are also cheaper options; I’ll get to those later). The Green Room package spares no attention to detail from the moment you check in, when you’re given a backstage pass to wear around your neck. Green Room attendees are welcomed into the Royal Hawaiian Theater before anyone else, escorted down the red carpet while hula dancers perform. You’re taken to — where else? — the Green Room, where you’re greeted by one of the evening’s tribute artists (the night I attended, it was Michael Jackson), who poses for a picture with you (a free print is included in the package). The Green Room is supposed to be an homage to the tropical themed “Jungle Room” at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, which, well, wasn’t green. Never mind. There are glasses of sparkling wine awaiting you, along with hors d’oeuvres. Get snacking!

You’re then taken on a backstage tour, getting an idea of what the dancers deal with when they have to race through the small corridors between numbers. We were allowed to try on the Tahitian headdresses the dancers wear (very heavy!), and you get to pose on stage with the huge Taiko drum. Next, you arrive at your stageside table, where you’re served a four-course meal, including beef tenderloin and wild Alaskan salmon and Maine lobster with your salad. Two free drinks as well. Everything was delicious. And now, on with the show….

Rock-a-Hula is a multi-media production; there are screens on both sides of the stage, and one at the rear. It’s also very much a live show; the band is placed right on stage, and none of the performers are lip-syncing. One fun element is how the film footage is used to underscore the live action on stage. The show opens with footage of the SS Lurline arriving in Honolulu, illustrating how most tourists visited the island before air travel took off. Then a large prop ship comes out on stage and the dancers re-create the kind of pier-side hula that greeted the new arrivals; a surfer even hangs from the ceiling, in a Cirque du Soleil touch. A panorama of images on the screens highlight Hawaiian legends of the past, like singer Alfred Apaka (some explanatory text on these pictures would be useful for those who might not immediately recognize the performers).

It all builds to the arrival of the first tribute artist to appear, Elvis Presley. The King is played by Rock-a-Hula veteran Johnny Fortuno, who handles the ’60s and ’70s Elvis eras with ease, starting out in the outfit Elvis wore while performing “Rock-a-Hula” in his first Hawaiian film, Blue Hawaii, then graduating to a jumpsuit, for his homage to Elvis’ 1973 Aloha From Hawaii satellite broadcast. Among the well-known stuff (“Hound Dog,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), there’s also a rarity; “Slicin’ Sand,” from Blue Hawaii, a song I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an Elvis tribute artist perform. Fortuno also gets up close and personal with audience, passing out scarves, kisses, and handshakes to the faithful during “Suspicious Minds.”

Michael Jackson (as performed by Jason Jarrett) is the only other tribute artist featured in the show. Aside from a quick nod to his Jackson 5 past (“I Want You Back”), it’s mostly the latter day Jackson that’s on display: “Shake Your Body,” “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” (complete with moonwalking). It’s a set that’s as heavy on dancing as it is on singing, and Jarrett has the moves down.

Though the show has no underlying narrative, there is an unifying theme; Rock-a-Hula is meant to take you on a “Hawaiian Journey,” the idea of a trip being referenced from that first footage of the SS Lurline. There are more dance numbers, with the energetic troupe performing to a medley of surf tunes, as well as traditional Hawaiian dancing (the Tahitian dancing is especially thrilling). The fire knife dancing is another highlight. No, it’s not a knife; think of it as a torch, or a baton, lit at one or both ends, and then vigorously spun around.

Also new to the show are spots for a local singer (who will rotate; Hirie was the performer when I attended). Hirie was featured in the show’s opening, and throughout the rest of the performance; in one moving sequence, when footage of Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was shown while his medley of “Over the Rainbow”/“What a Wonderful World” was played, the song segued into Hirie performing the final verse live. The show comes to a heartwarming conclusion with the entire cast on stage, leading everyone through the chorus of “Aloha ‘Oe,” written by Queen Lili‘uokalani (Hawaii’s last ruler). Afterwards, everyone’s welcome to meet the cast in the lobby, where they happily pose for photos and sign autographs.

 It’s a lively and engaging show, and making it more of a theatrical production than it was in its original incarnation has definitely made it more exciting. But in this latest iteration, I felt the tribute artists were a bit short-changed, with their spots cut back to allow for more dancing and the local singer.

Elvis in particular I felt was underused. If you want to make the show more Hawaiian-flavored, why not draw on more of the songs he performed in his other Hawaiian films (Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style)? Including Hawaiian-born songwriter Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You” would also be a good touch during the “Aloha From Hawaii” sequence (the concert was a benefit for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund). It felt like Elvis was in and out too quickly. And while I enjoyed Hirie, since she wasn’t playing a character herself, it made the show feel like a bit of a mish-mash. Is it a tribute artist show? Or a Hawaiian production where Elvis and Michael Jackson drop in for a couple of numbers?

It’s still a show I highly recommend. It’s just too much fun to pass up. And there’s so much going on, you can’t properly take it all in, in one viewing. That’s why I look forward to seeing Rock-a-Hula again.

Now, about those other ticket packages. The theater seats 750, with most seats in the upper auditorium (which they call the mezzanine), and Green Room and Stageside VIP packages seated at tables down front. The cheapest package is the Rockin’ Show ($69 adult/$41 child) which gets you a seat in the rear part of the mezzanine. I’ve sat in a variety of places in this venue and the view is good wherever you sit. But of course it’s more exciting to get as close as you can to the performers, so if you don’t want to do one of the deluxe packages, I recommend the Luau package ($109 adult/$66 child), which, you’ve guessed it, includes a very tasty luau buffet, with all the luau staples (roast pig, hulihuli chicken, lomilomi salmon), a mai tai, and better seating in the mezzanine. The Stageside VIP ($149 adult/$89 child) includes a reception before you’re seated at your not-quite-as-good-as-the-Green-Room-seating-but-still-pretty-good table, where you’re served the same dinner as the Green Room package, and you get two free drinks. The Green Room package isn’t that much more ($185 adult/$111 child), and consider that you also get an extra drink (that glass of sparkling wine in the Green Room itself) and a free souvenir photo (which otherwise costs $25). Depending on your budget, it might be worth the upgrade.

Tip: Be sure and take some time to explore the lobby, which features various rock memorabilia. There’s also a bar, and you’re allowed to take drinks into the auditorium. Want a scarf from Elvis? The stageside seating, or the front row and aisle seats of the mezzanine, give you the best chance.

***

 Jumpsuit Elvis (Johnny Fortuno) sends you plenty of Alooooooha!

The ever-energetic dance troupe of Rock-a-Hula

All hail the awesome fire knife dancer!

The swanky Green Room. Sparkling wine and snacks to spare.

Local non-character performers are now part of the Rock-a-Hula show. Pop-reggae artist Hirie was one of the rotating performers.

Jason Jerrett cops all the right moves as Michael Jackson.

Can you feel it? Michael Jackson (Jason Jerrett) gets it on with a Rock-a-Hula dancer.

Maine lobster, flown all the way to Waikiki — just for you.

Your humble correspondent and Johnny Fortuno, après the show.

Johnny Fortuno in action as the Blue Hawaii-era Elvis.

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