By KAREN WELSH
Special to the Tribune-Herald
Whether it is under the sea or over the rainbow, Pedro Kaawaloa and Kaiulani Lum-Ho are ecstatic to be a part of that world that began their careers as thespians while attending Hilo High School.
Kaawaloa is a Harvard University graduate currently working as the band director at the school, and Lum-Ho recently graduated from the University of Hawaii at Hilo with plans to move to Europe this summer to attend the master’s program at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
Both have fond and lasting memories of their first time on stage as former Performing Arts Learning Center students, a district-wide and state-funded theater program that first opened its doors in 1987.
Together they are co-directing the iconic and adapted 2008 Disney Broadway version of “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” and will present it to the public at 7:30 p.m. on April 5-6 and April 12-13, with matinee shows at 2 p.m. on April 7 and 14 in the school’s historic auditorium.
Program Director and Play Producer Jackie Seaquist said she was thrilled to give two of her star pupils the chance to surface again and spread their wings on this family friendly, fast-paced and colorful musical, complete with popular tunes that include “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Poor Unfortunate Soul” and “Under the Sea.”
“Both Pedro and Kaiulani expressed an interest in this play so I turned the production over to them,” she said. “I trust them completely. This is like coming home. I am mentoring them and this is a way to pay it forward.”
Lum-Ho, a student in the PALC program from 2001-2003, said it is a crazy experience coming back to the program on the opposite end of the spectrum.
“Now that I am in the director’s seat I am looking at theater from a completely different eye,” she said. “I have to put myself in the shoes of the students. I have to work with them on their level, and I’m learning with experience you get better patience.”
Kaawaloa, a PALC student from 1994-1999, said he finds it a fulfilling experience to work with Seaquist in a different capacity.
“We were students, now we’re directors,” he said. “It’s on a different level. It’s a whole new world. I’m used to working with peers that knows how theater works. Now I have to remember what it was like just starting out. Not all of the students know what to do.”
Kaawaloa said the ultimate payback is the growth in the student’s lives as they learn and thrive in their roles.
“The kids are fantastic,” he said. “The music and theater program students are passionate about what they are doing. They love to have fun. They have the drive and they have the potential. It’s an accomplishment that will stick with them forever. They will always remember this.”
Current PALC student Bridge Hartman, starring in the role of Ursula in the production, said it’s great to have Kawaaloa and Lum-Ho directing the show.
“Seeing two former PALC students take a leadership role is an awesome example of what present ‘PALCies’ can become, not only in the performing arts, but in any workforce or industry we choose to go in to,” he said.
Hilo High School Principal Robert Dircks said having Kaawaloa and Lum-Ho return is a definite plus for the program.
”It is an accomplishment,” he said. “They are both very talented but, to me, it says a lot about their character. I encourage all of our alumni to come back and to give back as they have done.”
Lum-Ho and Kaawaloa have high hopes that the community will come out in full force to support the program, which has been struggling in recent years to find the necessary funding and audience needed to make it a complete success.
It is one of the reasons Kaawaloa, who is talented both vocally and instrumentally, has chosen to forgo the throngs of success on other stages throughout the world and has remained to teach and invest his life in East Hawaii.
“We need hometown ownership,” he said. “The arts are in jeopardy. It’s hard to not want to stay here and fight for this program that has faced diminished funding and threats of being on the chopping block. We need to be concerned about the future, as clique as it sounds. If we lose this program, we miss out on the freedom of expression and creativity and then we become a society of drones. The community needs to support the arts, come to the shows, support you kids and get them involved.”
Kaawaloa said it blows his mind to think of what his life would be like today without those vital years in the PALC program.
“I realize how much my years of being here really meant to me,” he said. “If I hadn’t been here, where would I be? It’s mind-boggling to me.”
Lum-Ho credits the PALC program with helping to determine her course in life.
“If it weren’t for PALC, I would never have gotten into theater,” she said. “When I started PALC, that’s the one thing I wanted to do. I knew it.”
Seaquist said the show is geared up to be great family entertainment, with a cast of 27 students from Hilo and Waiakea high schools, Connections Charter and Hilo Intermediate School, complete with a stage full of bright sets, lights, costumes, effects and a lot of dazzling bling.
“If you are coming to see a Disney show, a family show, you will not be disappointed,” she said. “This musical has all the elements of the animated movie. If you are expecting to come and see the ‘Little Mermaid,’ then that’s what you are going to see. We are giving it as much eye candy as we possibly can.”
Tickets can be purchased at the door. It is $10 for adults and $5 for students with ID and seniors.