Actors with Hilo ties discuss roles, success on stage

  • Photo by Matthew Murphy Pedro Ka'awaloa stars as King Mongkut of Siam in an international touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I."
  • PEDRO KA'AWALOA
  • MARC delaCRUZ
  • HEATHER MAKALANI MANLEY
  • courtesy photo Heather Manley in costume backstage as Princess Jasmine.

Three actors with ties to Hilo are making their dreams come true at professional theater’s highest level.

Pedro Ka‘awaloa, a Hilo High School graduate who returned to teach music at his alma mater after earning a music degree at Harvard, is the male title lead in a national touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”

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Marc delaCruz and Heather Makalani Manley, who left the Big Island at ages 4 and 3, respectively, both tread the boards on Broadway — delaCruz, who’s performed the title role in the New York company of “Hamilton,” and Manley, who just wrapped a two-month stint in the Disney production “Aladdin,” having portrayed the female lead, Princess Jasmine.

The king

Pedro Ka‘awaloa’s rise to national touring status includes the regional theater circuit, including El Gallo in “The Fantasticks” — reprising the role he played in Kilauea Drama and Entertainment Network’s production in Volcano — and Henry and Cmdr. Harbison in two productions of “South Pacific.”

Before then, Ka‘awaloa was a force in East Hawaii community theater, including turns as Jesus in the Palace Theater’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” John in “Miss Saigon” and Sonny LaTierri in “Grease” at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and the Beast in KDEN’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Ka‘awaloa was also part of KDEN’s “The King and I.” He conducted the orchestra at Kilauea Theater, with a good view from the pit as Norman Arancon portrayed King Mongkut, a real-life monarch who ruled Siam (now Thailand), from 1851 until his death in 1868.

More than a triple threat, Ka‘awaloa is a “brainiac,” in the words of University of Hawaii at Hilo theater matriarch Jackie Johnson. A Harvard astrophysics major before following his heart and switching to music, Ka‘awaloa said he’s researched the king beyond the memoirs of Anna Leonowens — the English teacher Mongkut brought in to instruct his wives and children. The musical was based on “Anna and the King of Siam,” a semi-fictionalized 1944 biographical novel by Margaret Landon.

“There’s so much that we don’t know the reality, of course,” Ka‘awaloa said. “But one of the fun things is discovering who this man was in life and discovering who he is in the show. One of the things I love about this production of the show is that it starts to focus on imperialism and colonialism and what that means. Because the show is so centered around Anna, it really is easy to take the anglicized view. And the world of Siam seems so foreign. But in this production, they really make Siam the dominant culture. … I think it allows us and behooves us as performers to find the reality of these people. They’re not caricatures and they’re not really foreign. And we need to identify and find the humanity in these people.”

Johnson, KDEN’s Suzi Bond and a number of Big Islanders — including Ka‘awaloa’s mother, Betty Johns — traveled to Portland, Ore., to see Ka‘awaloa play King Mongkut, who has been portrayed by actors as diverse as Yul Brynner, Ken Watanabe and Lou Diamond Phillips.

“We met with him for coffee before his callback that night, and he went through his process, doing research about the character — the actual man, who became king in his 40s,” Johnson said. “He was a monk first. Pedro found this compassion for the person as a human being, not just a comical stereotype who has steam coming out of his nose. This was a fully fleshed-out character.”

Johnson said she was “mesmerized by the location (and) the quality of the production” at the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium and proud Ka‘awaloa didn’t fall into the trap of playing the king as “a comical stereotype with steam coming out of his nose.”

Ka‘awaloa said the king’s anger and frustration came from British and French colonialism in Asia and being hamstrung in his reign by the expectations of others.

“The magic of the king is finding the times that he’s he’s fun and he’s funny and he’s vulnerable — all of that within the expectation that the kingdom has of him as king. He knows that he has to abide by the culture and what’s expected of him. And that really places him in a box. He spends 26 years prior to being king as a Buddhist monk. So he’s a traditionalist. He believes in that. But at the same time, he’s very educated, he’s very forward thinking.

“… I liken him to King Kalakaua. King Kalakaua was a global man. He was thinking about the world and how Hawaii fit into the world. And the king of Siam is thinking the same thing. How do I get Siam to fit into this world and survive in this world, when most of the rest of Asia was being occupied by the French or the British at the time. And he firmly believed that education was the power that would allow his country to maintain its traditions but also allow it to move forward and survive in the world.”

And, like the Merrie Monarch almost a century and a half earlier, Ka‘awaloa travels for more than just himself.

“When I moved to start this career, people asked me if I’m going to keep my last name,” he explained. “We have some actors from Hawaii but we have very few Hawaiians doing this. So it gives me great pride to have my name with top billing, to see a Hawaiian name out there. It fills me with pride; it really does. But also honor to be able to represent the Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian race.”

The production still has performances in Dayton, Ohio, Baltimore, Madison, Wis., Indianapolis, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Raleigh, N.C., Newport News, Va., Lima, Ohio, State College and Scranton, Pa., Springfield, Mo., Manhattan, Kan., Davenport, Iowa, Milwaukee, Springfield, Ill., Fort Wayne, Ind., New Philadelphia, Ohio, Midland, Mich., Opelika, Ala., Columbus, Ga., Lexington, Ken., Wheeling W.Va. and Elmira, N.Y. It closes out with a four-day, six-show run in New Haven, Conn.

Tickets and other information are available online at http://thekinganditour.com/.

The founding father

Hilo-born Marc delaCruz has tasted what most who aspire to an actor’s life would consider an “I can die happy now” moment — twice.

An ensemble regular in Broadway’s current “it” musical, “Hamilton,” he performed the lead role of Alexander Hamilton — which he has understudied since December — twice during the weekend of Jan. 20. As a bonus, his parents, Roy and Rochelle delaCruz traveled from their Waimea home to witness their son’s star turn in the title character created by Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. He continues to understudy that role plus the roles of John Laurens, Philip Hamilton and King George.

DelaCruz called it “a huge honor to be part of a production that is gorgeously and astoundingly crafted and has such a far reach.”

“I can’t say I’ve ever been part of something that has had this kind of instant name recognition,” delaCruz said. “For example my parents, who support everything I do, usually have to explain the shows I’m doing to their friends and family. But with ‘Hamilton’ this is not necessary, everyone already knows about it! Lin-Manuel Miranda has done something never heard or dreamt of and has reached and inspired people worldwide.”

His parents, who have since returned to the Big Island, relocated when delaCruz was 4 to Seattle, where he started acting. He earned an international studies degree at the University of Washington, but took advantage of opportunities to learn and perform as part of Seattle’s thriving arts community.

After moving to New York, delaCruz performed off-Broadway with 5th Avenue Theatre, Village Theatre and ReAct, and made his Broadway debut several years ago in “If/Then.”

DelaCruz comes from a family of performers and musicians. He said his Philippines-born father “moved to Seattle at a young age (and) performed Filipino dances all over Seattle while he was in college.” His mother plays piano. And he describes his sister, Deirdre, as “a beautiful, charismatic performer (who) possesses an incredible voice.”

“The two of us often spent our afternoons after school putting on records of musicals like ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ or ‘Cats,’ and singing and dancing along with them in the living room,” he said.

The family continued to keep close ties with Hilo, since his maternal grandparents, Man Chong Wong and Ida Mae Wong, were here. Rochelle delaCruz’s brother, Rodney Wong, was a musician, arranger and educator who played trombone in the Hawaii County Band and in myriad local productions before his passing last June at 77. DelaCruz cited Wong — who he called “Uncle Awo” — as an early influence.

“He was a natural performer and one of the first people to show me what it means to “take the stage,” delaCruz said. “He really knew how to tell a story or joke and whenever he started everyone gathered around because they knew it was going to be good.

“… When I was twelve I spent a summer in Hilo by myself where I took Uncle Awo’s music class as part of a kids’ summer program. I had been taking piano lessons up until then but it wasn’t until taking his class that I began to really grasp music theory. While there, I composed my first ever piece of music on the piano. He said, not at all judgmentally, that it sounded kind of like a pirate song.

“I never pursued music composition but studying with my uncle that summer is one of my favorite memories of him.”

“Hamilton” has provided opportunities for and focused attention to actors of color, including Asian American actors, in a way perhaps no previous Broadway production has. Earlier in the decade, delaCruz was in another groundbreaking production, “Allegiance,” at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, which delaCruz said helped him “understand what it was like to be part of a production that is getting a lot of attention.”

“The star power of George Takei and Lea Salonga generated a lot of interest in ‘Allegiance,’ which was wonderful because it directed a lot of attention onto the subject of the production, the World War II Japanese American internment camps,” delaCruz said. “I think one of the most useful things I learned from the experience was how to focus on the task at hand while being part of something very public.

“Aside from being famous and having incredible careers, both George and Lea are grounded, hard-working performers, and once we were inside the rehearsal studio or theater we were all simply actors working together to tell a story. Only after the performance, when we walk out of the theater and see lines of people waiting to meet them, would we remember that they are celebrities.”

DelaCruz said he’s “very humbled by the interest in me and what I am doing here at Hamilton.”

“I’ve heard endless stories of how ‘Hamilton’ has touched peoples’ lives, uplifted them or simply brought them joy,” he said. “To have been cast in the show and entrusted with imparting this material — the music, text, choreography and storytelling — is a big responsibility and I find it quite humbling. It is also humbling because I know there are a lot of performers out there who possess not only the talent, but the drive and passion to perform in this show.

“Every day I go to work and feel grateful that I get to do this.”

The princess

Of the island-born actors profiled here, Heather Makalani Manley has had the farthest to come, literally, to pursue her showbiz ambitions.

Leaving Hilo at age 3, Manley grew up on Guam, although her family still maintains a home here.

She left the Broadway company of the hit Disney musical “Aladdin” with a bang, portraying Aladdin’s love interest, Princess Jasmine — a role she understudied while appearing regularly in the ensemble — her final weekend. Her last show was Feb. 10.

Manley said her first taste of performing was taking hula lessons as a child.

“That’s where it all began,” she said. “I feel like hula is about musicality and telling a story and that’s very much what an actor has to do — tell the story.”

Manley was bitten with the musical theater bug after watching a high school production of “Grease” at the GATE Theatre — the GATE stands for “Gifted and Talented Education” — at 14.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that looks fun! I wanna do something like that!’ Manley exclaimed. “After that, I auditioned for every high school musical ’til graduation. I got to be a part of ‘Footloose,’ ‘Aida,’ and ‘High School Musical.’ And that sparked my love of performing, and I knew that that was what I wanted to pursue.”

At 21, Manley auditioned for the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, whose alumni include Hugh Jackman and comic Jim Jefferies. She managed to snag one of just 10 coveted spots for women that year, and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Music Theater three years later.

“In my graduating year, the Australian production of ‘Aladdin the Musical’ was auditioning, and I got cast in the ensemble, as well as understudying Princess Jasmine,” she said. “So I was a part of the production for about two-and-a-half years. And because I was there in a post-study work visa, I knew I could only stay in Australia for so long, as my visa was coming to end. I emailed the associate director and casting director of ‘Aladdin,’ saying I had plans on moving to the states and to express my interest in auditioning for the Broadway company or national tour of the show if any openings were to come up.”

“I didn’t hear anything for months,” she continued. “Then, in October, while I was finishing up with the production in Perth, Australia, I got an email with the subject ‘Temporary Broadway Opening.’ It said there was a two-month opening for an ensemble/Jasmine understudy track and they asked if I’d be interested in auditioning. Long story short, I made the move to New York City.

“Since being on Broadway, I have been lucky enough to have stepped into the princess’ shoes several times.”

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And those shoes are golden slippers on Manley’s résumé as she pounds the pavement for the next round of auditions, hoping to land her next show soon.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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