Jack “Tihati” Thompson and Cha Thompson, founders of the Tihati Polynesian show franchise in the islands, made a rare appearance at the Hilton Hawaiian Village luau spectacle last night (Nov. 12).
“It’s been five years since we’ve seen this show,” Cha uttered while greeting a cast member.
“No, it’s been eight years,” said the performer, correcting the timetable.
Amid hugs and fist bumps, the presence of the Tihati dynamos was triggered when Papa Jack thought our soldier-boy grand nephew PFC John Rhoades, home for a few weeks before his Army assignment at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in another week, might want to get a taste of Polynesian syncopation before his next three-year gig. “We’ll get a picture of you with the dancers, so you can show your friends how beautiful Hawaii is,” said Jack.
So yep, right after the splendid performance, John was shuttled backstage to the makeshift dressing quarters, for a meet-and-greet photo op, the result of which now is among the treasures on his cellphone camera he’ll bring with him to flash to his soldier buddies he has yet to meet.
I had a ringside glimpse, sitting across Jack and Cha, as they relived the memories of this particular endeavor, which premiered in 2013 at the same Great Lawn setting, a grassy patch in the midst of towering Hilton hotel rooms overlooking a man-made lagoon and the turquoise jewel of an ocean with Diamond Head in the distance.
This show also marked the debut of the latest Thompson grandson Eli Hunter Matagitokelau Thompson, the newest dancer in the ensemble of movers-and-shakers, who is the son of Afatia and Nicole Thompson. Afatia has succeeded his dad as Tihati Productions president; Nicole is a choreographer for the company.
This Hilton production, billed as the “Waikiki Starlight Lu‘au,” now is Tihati’s largest Waikiki luau endeavor, with three performances a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays). As visitor counts improve, there will be five shows a week, hopefully by the end of the month. With social distancing considerations, the open-air venue is playing to half a house since reopeninng – pretty good, considering the Japanese visitorship has not yet factored into the playbook.
The show previously was relocated atop the parking, sacrificing the precious oceanfront site that enhanced the visitor experience. Back in the day, a canoe in the lagoon paddled to the shore, followed by a visitor-participation hukilau – pulling in a net, presumably with the day’s catch – which became an integral element and photo op. The entire production was relocated to reduce wear-and-tear of the grounds, which also featured an imu from which a kalua pig would be fetched and paraded through the audience.
The kalua pig still makes an appearance, but no longer from the pit, and is raced toward the food service station to be part of the dinner platters also featuring teri chicken and baked mahimahi.
The pandemic eliminated buffet service, so spectators await the distribution of the dinner platters, preceded by pupu – including a lovely salad with greens, mac salad and a scoop of mashed purple Okinawan sweet potato – plus assorted island chips, pipikaula, edamame and dinner rolls.
Without a cheat sheet, with proper titles of mele and dances performed or names of the troupers, this is a more of an informal reflection than a formal review of the evening’s entertainment.
Last things first: a trio of Samoan fire knife dancers clearly is the proper and fitting nightcap and the audience favorite. Amazing whirling and twirling of the knives, set against the pulse of drumming.
The journey includes stops in South Seas nations, including Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji and Maori New Zealand. The excursion includes the Samoan slap dance, a traditional Hawaiian kahiko hula, the otea of Tahitian, and Maori war dances by the gents with painted faces and the poi ball dances with the women.
Cultural summaries shared by Keali‘i, the genial host/vocal soloist, were penned by Misty Thompson Tufono, Tihati vice president, entertainment manager and historian, who is sister of Afatia and daughter of the company’s co-founders, who still serve as ambassadors of aloha, when needed.
Tufono is the scriptwriter and keeper of the flame of the culture of Hawaii and its Polynesian kin, and is the mind who provides the words of that other Tihati specialty, attraction, the “‘Aha‘aina,” featured on the beachfront lawn at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, yet another perfect setting embracing the history of the environs.
En route home to Hawaii Kai, Jack left the grounds of the Hilton and drove east on Kalakaua Avenue, the hub of Waikiki’s top attractions. Thus, we passed the Pink Palace, home of the Royal Hawaiian show; the Moana Banyan Court, where a Tihati attraction was staged for decades beneath the centerpiece banyan tree; the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, where “Bora Bora E” ran for 14 years; the Princess Kaiulani, where “Creation: A Polynesian Journey” was anchored; the International Market Place, where the historic Duke Kahanamoku’s was the first site of a Tihati-brand show; the former Pacific Beach Hotel (now Alohilani), where a version of “Te Moana Nui” was featured; the International Market Place mini-show, where “’O Nalani Sunset Stories” prevailed prior to the pandemic; and the legendary Queen’s Surf when the couple — young sweethearts who graduated from Farrington High School — earned their stripes – Cha as a hula dancer, Jack as a Samoan fire knife dancer — in a show at Queen’s Surf.
For the record, Tihati staged “Tihati’s Polynesian Ballet” at the Cinerama Reef Hotel on Lewers, plus a dinner-theater rendering of “South Pacific” at the House of Janus, on Ala Moana Boulevard – not on the drive home.
Getting back to the Hilton lu‘au: At our table in the audience, yet another Thompson grandchild, Bella Carmen Ku‘ukamaaukaialoha Fuatino Thompson, sister of the aforementioned dancer Eli Matagitokelau Thompson and thus the daughter of Afatia and Nicole Thompson, was overseeing the flow and content of the production. (She also was there to provide transportation home for her brother). Dad Afatia wanted feedback on the show and Bella, who knows many dances and the troupers because of her earlier participation in Tihati shows, admitted she wants to help her dad. Hmmm, is this a potential next-generation Tihati team member? …
And that’s Show Biz. …