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Revamped ‘Rock-A-Hula!’ tribute artist show is bigger, bolder, and better

Legends on display in Waikiki: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga
Legends on display in Waikiki: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga
Gillian G. Gaar

Legends In Concert Waikiki’s highly successful “Rock-A-Hula!” show celebrated its second anniversary by getting a makeover.

The tribute artist show, presented in a state-of-the-art, 750-seat theater located in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, mixes together tribute artist acts and Hawaiian numbers in creating a night of dazzling entertainment. And the revamped show, which debuted last May, is better than ever.

The number of tribute artists has been scaled back from four to three. And there are more Hawaiian/Polynesian sequences to remind you that you are, after all, in a tropical paradise.

Elvis (Johnny Fortuno) still anchors the show. After the performance opens with the blowing of the conch, a film montage of Hawaiian scenes, and live dancers, the ’60s-era Elvis takes over the stage, singing “Drums of the Islands.” It’s a song that illustrates Elvis’ many connections with the islands, as it’s from the film “Paradise, Hawaiian Style,” and the opening set has a big Hawaiian focus: songs include “Hawaii, U.S.A.” (also from “Paradise, Hawaiian Style”); two songs from “Blue Hawaii,” the title song and “Rock-A-Hula”; and even a “hapa haole” (Hawaiian-style music, English lyrics) number, “Sophisticated Hula.” There’s also a flashback to the ’50s, when Fortuno dons prison stripes and energetically jives his way through one of Elvis’ most iconic numbers, “Jailhouse Rock.”

Seventies-era Elvis puts in an appearance toward the end of the show. One of Elvis’ most legendary performances was his 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” concert, and Fortuno wears a gorgeous replica of the jumpsuit the real Elvis wore for that event. You hear great renditions of Elvis’ best known numbers from the show: “I’ll Remember You” (by Hawaiian-based singer-songwriter Kui Lee), a rousing “Suspicious Minds,” and Elvis’ standard set closer, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Fortuno, an award-winning Elvis Tribute Artist, also has great fun interacting with the audience; if you’re lucky, you might get a handshake, a kiss, or a scarf from him when he strolls through the audience.

Lady Gaga (Jackie Wiatrowski) makes her appearance descending from the ceiling. Outrageous costumes? Yes. Hit songs like “Poker Face”? Of course. But Lady Gaga’s an accomplished pianist as well, and Wiatrowski doesn’t overlook that aspect, striking a pose to show off her exceptionally long legs when she sits down to play the keyboards as well. With a high factor of BPMs (beats per minute), this part of the show really bumps up the excitement.

Michael Jackson (Damian Brantley) rounds out the tribute artists with his smooth moves and sharp singing. As you’d expect, this segment features the flashiest dancing, with a little moonwalking in “Billie Jean” and ghouls swarming all over the stage during “Thriller.” There’s also a nice nod to acclaimed Hawaiian performer Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole (better known as Iz), when Brantley’s performance of “Over the Rainbow” segues into a recording of Iz’s version (and Judy Garland’s as well).

Polynesian-themed performances are interspersed throughout the show between the tribute artist acts; most exciting is the fire-knife dance by Hale Motu’apuaka, a world champion fire-knife dancer. Special mention should also be made of the show’s excellent dancers, who are on stage more than anyone else, providing dancing for each tribute artist and doing featured set pieces (e.g. Tahitian dancing) as well; there are even acrobats before Elvis’ second set. The live music is provided by a versatile on stage band, led by musical director/bassist Alfonso West.

After a reprise of “Drums of the Islands,” the show comes to an uplifting ending when the entire cast gathers on stage to sing “We Are the World,” and lead a sing-along to the closing number, “Aloha Oe” (written by Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani). Don’t rush off; you can meet all the tribute artists in the lobby after the show, when they’re happy to pose for photos and sign autographs. Be sure to check out the rock memorabilia in the lobby too.

Tickets start at $65 for the “Legendary Cocktail” package, which includes a free drink. But it's well worth paying an additional $35 and upgrading to the “Terrace Luau” package, which not only gives you premier seating, but also provides an all-you-can-eat (and very tasty) buffet, with roast beef, kalua pork, hulihuli chicken, lomilomi salmon, and guava chiffon cake among the many delicious offerings. The outside dining experience is further enhanced with live music and dancing.

For an extra special night out, there are “Stageside VIP” and “Green Room” packages. Both place you right down front; in this writer’s opinion, the view from the theater seats is the better one, but there’s no denying the excitement of being up close and personal with the performers. Both packages include a four-course dinner, and special receptions; as the name suggests, the “Green Room” packages get to hang out in the theater’s green room with one of the show’s tribute artists, and get a backstage tour as well.

“Rock-A-Hula!” offers first-rate production values, great songs, and vibrant performances. All the necessary ingredients for a perfect night out.