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When Ulalena opened in July 1999, the show turned heads with its blend of Hawaiian songs, dances, chants, aerial acts and state-of-the-art production touches. It was unprecedented among entertainment options around the islands, and it earned rave reviews.
Flash-forward to today: Nearly 1.2 million people have seen Ulalena. It holds forth in Lahaina’s Maui Theatre, a one-of-a-kind wonder among Hawaii halls. The venue calls on sophisticated lighting and background images that add atmosphere to the setting. A superb sound system embraces the audience with music, some of which is recorded and some created live by performers who sit on an elevated platform in plain view.
Among Ulalena’s audience members are repeat visitors like myself.
Every viewing offers something new, according to Dennis Preussler, general manager for Maui Theatre.
“Ulalena is such a personal story for our cast and crew that each night, the performers put their hearts out on the stage,” Preussler said. “That changes the experience slightly from show to show.”
Adhering closely to authentic legends and lore of Hawaii, Ulalena shares these stories in a way that is both entertaining and educational. Ideal for clients who want to learn about the destination, it traces Hawaii’s many ethnicities, foods and pastimes back to their origins. Members of the cast act, sing and dance throughout the production, with some taking on multiple roles. A few of them dangle and glide above the stage using silks and trapezes.
Enlivened by imaginative props and costumes, the story starts with the birth of the islands. Clients are taken on a mesmerizing musical journey through Hawaii’s history, from the first ocean voyagers who navigated canoes by the stars, waves and birds to the destination’s important mythological characters, such as the volcano goddess Pele and the demigod Maui.
At one point, men pound poi from fresh taro roots while women beat kapa (bark cloth). Then, they come together for a celebration of the time-honored Makahiki harvest festival. Inspired choreography brings to life tales of European explorers who sparked conflicts between old and new lifestyles; of Hawaiian monarchs and immigrant plantation workers; and of the regenerating forces of nature. For me, the show’s highlight is an enchanting cirque-style tribute to renewal under the light of Hina, the moon goddess.
From scene to scene, Ulalena features so many different elements that it begs to be experienced more than once. On my second viewing, I was particularly struck by the passion of the performers, who seemed to inhabit the characters they represent.
Preussler explains that the cast is truly dedicated to the Hawaiian culture.
“On their off days, our performers are working on taro farms; practicing the language, chant and hula; and honing their skills in Hawaiian martial arts, which is practiced by a very small group of people on the island,” Preussler said. “Audiences can feel the aloha spirit and see how and why the people of Hawaii have that special spirit.”
I’m looking forward to seeing Ulalena again on a future visit to Maui. I could spend the entire time watching the live musicians on keyboard, guitar and all types of percussion who play an integral part in making the show so distinctive. For all clients, Ulalena fills the niche for bona fide Hawaiian entertainment that stands apart from more traditional hula shows and luau productions.
Ulalena runs from Monday through Thursday at 5 p.m. Tickets start at a rate of $70 per adult and $30 per child.