A Producer With Aloha

The first time I went to Maui with Jeff Gitlin was in the fall of 2002.

The Las Vegas production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding had opened in February of that year and was now running like a well-oiled interactive theatre machine doing 7 performances a week and employing 22 actors and 4 musicians – a stage manager and a sound and light technician were also on the staff. Jeff called me to say that we had an opportunity at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Ka’anapali Beach on the west side of Maui north of Lahaina.

I had just opened a play Off Broadway titled “Blessing In Disguise” and had just celebrated the first birthday of my son, Alexander.

I arrived for initial casting. Jeff picked me up at the Maui airport and I saw a side of him that is not often seen. Jeff, the unrelenting over working producer, was cool and relaxed and said “Welcome to Maui My Laria.” (I believe he viewed me as malaria because what producer really likes a director? Jeff Gitlin – that’s who.) “Aloha Jeffery!” And we were off to the Hyatt for auditions./

Jeff was a different person in Maui. He loved the island and was never afraid to express it. We turned left at the Maui Ocean Center onto the Pali Highway and I was blown away by the view of Molokai and Lanai. Jeff pointed both out and even pulled off on the Pali viewpoint just so he could savor the sight of the trio of islands that make up the core of the Hawaii..

I thought, “This is so unlike Jeff.” Jeff typically wants to get right to work and often times will work the entire time he is driving, especially when he has a fellow team member work with him. “Wow” I sighed, “Jeff must have sipped on a Mai Tai or two.” He showed me the sights like an earnest tour guide. Coming around a corner of the island he said with sweet assurance “This is Lahaina. I love it here. We have to go to Kimo’s.” “Hm,” I thought “I’ll go anywhere with this Jeff. I didn’t know what the hell Kimo’s was, but Jeff liked it so I liked it.” As he pointed to the city by the sea, I had an opportunity to glance over at the Aloha shirt wearing workaholic who called me every day to make sure Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding Las Vegas was on target.” This Aloha Jeff, had narrowed all of his angst down to a soothing wonder and peace. He even had a tan and a puka-shell necklace around his neck. When he pulled up to the Hyatt, he got out of the car like he was arriving home.

“You have to see Swan Court!” Jeff non-chalanty said as we entered the rotunda like lobby of the Hyatt. A forest of balconies and green plants grew upwards. “Why not?” I responded, hoping it was a venue for the show – with a bar – so I could drink some of the Mai Tai Mystical Kool-Aid Jeff had obviously consumed.”

This was not my first trip to Maui, I had been often and even stayed at the Hyatt, but to see it through Jeff’s eyes was a virgin’s journey. He said “aloha” and “mahalo” to everyone he saw. “Gee” I thought “I am the one with hospitality. What has made this transformation in Jeff Gitlin?” We sat in Swan Court, a high-end restaurant that looked out on the ocean and was flanked by, you guessed it, small rock pools with live swans. Jeff saw the entire production in this venue. As a director, I was used to producers welcoming me into church basements and abandoned dining halls as they questioned me “Can this place work for the show?” Jeff didn’t blink an eye as he pointed out where the band could be placed AND he said we can do the ceremony upstairs in the bar by the penguins.” Words I will always cherish. Swans and Penguins and Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding had never combined, but Jeff presented it to me on a platter. He envisioned the play in the room and as he sat there like Kamehameha doling out proclamations, I too began to envision the play in this most unlikely of venues.

We had done a casting call for the play and when we entered the ballroom for the auditions, I smiled and was greeted by the most unusual set of actors ready to audition for an Italian American play that I ever witnessed (as in witness protection program). The mélange of faces were brown/local, Asian, white (halole) with suntans on their faces and slippers on their feet.

I wanted to just separate all the actors between local looking and non-local looking but Jeff wouldn’t allow it. He commented that the Hawaiian culture was mixed (ala mixed plate) and that was the beauty of it. His love and respect for Hawaii were growing every minute.

We mounted the play, had an interracial diverse cast and changed tuxedos for white and red Aloha shirts. It was a dream of a production, Swan Court, penguins with cocktails and a conch show to begin the festivities. A kumu was invited to bless the production and his prayers were answered.

Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding Maui ran for several years at the Hyatt and in  different venues including on all three NCL cruise ships – we would bring the show onto each ship when it entered the Maui harbor and the cast would depart before the ship sailed (as they say) and the cast would show up ready the next day for the next ship. Three venues for a single play three times a week. We blocked the venues on each ship separately and rehearsed each band separately. Even the food was different each night from each ship’s kitchen. Sounds like a mess, but actually it ran very smoothly for over a year.

We then did the Ka’anapali Beach Club ballroom as our third venue and we put together a very tight lovely show and Jeff was there for us at every turn, setting up tables, preparing menus, sharing marketing advice and growing his love for Hawaii.

And all of this prepared Jeff for becoming the producer of Huaka’i, Journey to Polynesia at the Ka’anapali Beach Club in 2015. Created by Melody and Kaniala Masoe, this luau that ran for six years and only ended because Covid-19 decided to have it’s own production in Hawaii.

Once the luau ended, Jeff continued to dream. We approached so many venues from Ka’anapali Beach Hotel to the Maui Ocean Center but the time was not right.

By the time, time Covid-19 was a little under control, Jeff began again to aggressively search out venues and he emailed and called every venue he could get his Google on – he even went on a trip to Maui in July of 2021 with his wife, Jessica, promising not to do “too” much business but every restaurant, every beach and brewery became a possibility to Jeff for a new updated production of Huaka’i, Journey to Polynesia. He would quietly walk away from dinner with his wife and Facetime me to show me where they were having dinner or lunch and asking if I thought we could do the luau in that venue.

Eventually, Jeff found his way to the Maui Ocean Center where he knew destiny was at hand. A lovely restaurant that was covered but open air (most luaus have to close on a rainy night in Maui).

He arranged a meeting and with what seemed like his last possible hope, Jeff, with Hawaii in his heart, struck a deal to bring Huaka’i back to life – not in just any venue but in the Maui Ocean Center’s restaurant Seascape overlooking Ma’alea Bay. This is a venue known by everyone who comes to the island either visually or through a family visit. Sea turtles and whales star in the Maui Ocean Center show and now they will be able to include singers, dancers and musicians to the MOC family.

Booking the luau was Jeff’s gift to all of us who thought that Huaka’i was a memory. Jeff turned that memory into reality by never giving up the dream of producing yet another show in Hawaii. He respects the culture of the ‘aina and gives back by ensuring a production that elevates the culture that exists there.

Huaka’i, Journey to Polynesia opens November 3, 2021 and Jeff Gitlin will be there with his Aloha shirt on embracing the islands and producing from his heart. Perhaps this time, we will find out the ingredients in his Mai Tai Mystical Kool Aid drink.  I suspect when we do, it will be courage, determination and the spirit to continue a dream without setting boundaries.

Jeff sees the future and then realizes it into an experience for the audience – part dream, part entertainment and all heart.