Merrie Monarch Opening Up, Sorta

Kumu hula Mark Ho‘omalu | Photo fropm Mark Ho‘omalu

Somebody at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo is paying attention to you fans – and even to me, as a yearly attendee and writer of Hawaii’s biggest artistic event.

They have invited Mark Ho’omalu’s halau from the West Coast to participate in the 50th anniversary competition in April. Yes, the same Mark-with-glove-and-sunglasses Ho’omalu, the man with the syncopation who brings audiences to their feet with cheers but never wins any awards from the traditionalist judges.

Alas, no Patrick Makuakane again this year. He’s the fellow who produced a Hare Krishna hula and now has a Gangnam Style hula in his latest Mainland show. I guess the judges will have to grin and bear it with Ho’omalu’s glove and glasses, but are spared Makuakane’s cheeky interpretations.

Ho’omalu is a big plus for this year – my last as an attendee. I may opt in the future for TV in my Hilo Seaside Hotel room while spouse Denby continues going to the stadium.

There will be 26 halau this year, so some very long Friday and Saturday nights. Only three Mainland halau made the cut. And yes, Hilo’s Johnny Lum Ho will be there. He was the Patrick Makuakane of many years ago – hula costumes considered by the judges to be too “show biz,” even though his dancers were the best. Now he’s the brilliant native son.

Some major changes in the judges this year, too, mixing the old with the new. We’ll have Cy Bridges, Nalani Kanakaole, Mae Kamalu Klein, Joan Lindsey, Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis, Kealii Reichel and Kalena Silva. Don’t expect much slack from Bridges, Kanakaole or Zuttermeister, but perhaps some surprising scoring from Silva and Reichel.

Kumu hula plan their dances based on who’s judging. They know who demands traditional steps and costume of the Kalakaua era and who’s got an open mind and believes that dancing evolves.

The Merrie Monarch has not had any trouble filling Edith Kanakaole Stadium, but there’s been a growing rumble about the sameness of the halau offerings and the refusal to reward kumu who do more than the equivalent of Swan Lake precisely as it was done in 1876.

You’re going to see some not-so-famous kumu and their halau this year. That’s a plus. It won’t be a total repeat of past years.

I hope maybe my annual nitpicking has hit home, but I don’t think the festival organizers are tone deaf.

They know the crowd’s gone wild for Ho’omalu even though the judges sit on their hands.

KFVE will do the TV coverage again this year. How KITV let that one get away is a story still to be told some day.

See you at the Merrie Monarch!