kupanaha magic dinner theater at ka`anapali beach hotel: how’d he do that?

Kupanaha. It takes nine words in the English language to define this one, seemingly simple Hawaiian word: surprising, strange, wonderful, amazing, extraordinary, unaccountable, marvelous, astonishing situation. After experiencing a performance of this newly revamped magic dinner theater At Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel, my friend Steph and I agree: “That pretty much covers it!”

Starring renowned Maui magicians Jody Baran and Kathleen, and featuring the Kupanaha Dancers, the production was four years in the making until its premiere in April 2011. Titled “Seven Magicians Came to Hawai‘i and One Stayed,” the show features classic illusions from the repertoires of seven of the world’s greatest magicians who visited Hawai‘i in the last century, as well as an array of Jody’s original creations.

The magical evening begins at 4:30 p.m., when we gather outside the hotel’s Kanahele Room. We’re warmed up by Holden, a young, congenial, local boy who wows us with rope, ring, and card tricks, while enlisting plenty of fun audience participation. When it’s time to enter the theater, Stage Manager Tim asks if anyone needs special assistance with being seated. “If you have any trouble walking—now this is before the Mai Tais, not after—I’m here to help,” he quips.

After a quick photo op (photos are available for sale after the show and may be autographed by Jody and Kathleen), Steph and I are given the choice of a Blue Hawaiian or Mai Tai with rum; both come embellished with mandatory paper umbrellas. Seating in the intimate theater is at round tables, and we’re joined by John and Joyce from Arizona, and Joan and Mark from Wisconsin.

Food selections for the three-course dinner are made in advance at time of booking. White-gloved servers efficiently bring our appetizers: grilled vegetable bruschetta for Steph, and a Kalua pork quesadilla on flatbread for me. Both are yummy little creations that leave us anticipating great things from our entrées. The Kupanaha Dancers perform a spirited traditional hula, featuring drums and conch shell, honoring travelers to our great state, as well as the sea, land, people and kupanaha of Hawai‘i.

Throughout the dinner service, Holden comes to each table and performs skillful close-up magic: a fun trick with three upside-down cups and a moving ball, and another clever trick where he puts the ball in his pocket and it somehow ends up in one of the cups. Amazing! Meanwhile, our entrées arrive. Steph has selected the tenderloin steak and shrimp, and it’s nicely presented with two grilled jumbo shrimp balanced atop a perfectly medium rare steak, all on a mound of creamy mashed potatoes. My seared fresh island fish is a generous portion of seasoned red snapper; it’s served on a bed of rice and cloaked in a tasty sweet chili black bean sauce. The Blue Hawaiians and Mai Tais are unlimited, and the wait staff is quick to replenish.

On center stage a single wahine clad in a gorgeous purple and green dress, and wearing a smile as beautiful as her costume, performs a lovely traditional hula while holding a gourd. Two other dancers mirror her movements on the side stages. When our desserts are served, Steph enjoys her Pina Colada cheesecake with caramelized pineapples, and I savor the fresh fruit plate that’s elegantly presented in a pineapple ring. Both desserts are adorned with fresh orchids.

It’s time for the show to begin! Jody and Kathleen take the stage—he’s dramatically attired in a classic magician’s black tuxedo with tails; she’s dressed similarly in a long, black dress with purple ruffles that match his boutonnière. Their outfits provide a perfect backdrop for flawlessly performed illusions involving a single white dove and multiple brightly colored scarves, a classic shredded newspaper trick, and a clever card and hat trick. When Jody leaves the stage to prepare for the next act, Kathleen playfully “scolds” him for forgetting to do the salt trick. Not wanting to let us, or Kathleen down, Jody maintains a neutral expression while seemingly endless streams of salt flow from his hands. It’s the first of many “how’d he do that?” moments.

The dancers once again take the stage to perform a hula taking us back to the time of ancient Hawai‘i, one full of myths and legends. In this exciting dance, wahine dressed in fiery red costumes and kane in traditional loin cloths portray the story of Pele, the volcano goddess.

In the first of several illusions inspired by the master magicians of the world, Jody takes the stage in aloha wear (he jokes about being dressed in “Hawaiian formal wear”) and performs his version of Harry Houdini’s Great Escape. Amanda from Minnesota is recruited to buckle Jody’s straightjacket, from which he manages to free himself in fairly short order.

Jody works with audience member Jack from North Dakota on a disappearing watch trick where boxes within boxes are opened until finally (spoiler alert) Jody opens a can of pork and beans containing the timepiece. Next to me, John blurts out: “How’d he do that?” See what I mean?

In their version of Howard Thurston’s Levitation of the Island Princess, Jody has us holding our collective breath as Kathleen rises several feet above the platform where she’d been lying supine only moments earlier. While a cloud of smoke swirling above his head, Jody passes a ring over Kathleen to prove there are no wires holding her aloft. After lowering her back to the platform, Jody deadpans, “that was certainly uplifting,” and is rewarded by a generous round of applause.

A tribute to the great Long Tack Sam from Beijing, China (Jody tells us there were many who tried to copy Sam’s tricks, including one named “Foo Ling Yu”—ouch!), involves dancers in shiny black and red Mandarin pantsuits demonstrating mesmerizing plate spinning skills, while Holden reappears in a black Chinese robe to perform captivating ring tricks, all accompanied by clanging Chinese gongs.

Jody tells us his show-closing Sawing a Lady in Half illusion is the same trick that was performed more than 100 years ago by Charles Carter. Jody straps Kathleen on an old operating table that has straps used to hold patients down and holes for drainage (yuck!), and places two wooden boxes over her. He dramatically chops through the middle of the boxes with a huge meat cleaver saying, “The hard part is putting her back together again. You shouldn’t try these things at home—if you don’t believe me, you can ask my half brother.” Kathleen emerges unscathed, and we all respond enthusiastically with lots of hand clapping and whistling.

Their hana hou act, called “Stop the Press,” has Jody running Kathleen, who’s dressed as a mermaid, through an old-fashioned printing press. He “prints” her out on a long piece of one-dimensional laminated paper, then restores her to her original three-dimensional being. Talk about saving the best for last!

Following the show, tablemate John says, “It was excellent! Very good food, and I enjoyed learning about the history of magic.” Steph says, “The illusions really wowed me.” Jody and Kathleen are outside the theater to meet, greet, and autograph. As Ed Sullivan would have said, it was a “really good show.”

Performances of Kupanaha are held Tuesday through Saturday evenings. Gold Circle front row seats are $89; general seating is $79 for adults, $55 for teens; and $39 for children 12 years and under, with those under six admitted free when accompanied by an adult. For reservations: 667-0128, or http://www.kupanaha.com.

–heidipool

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