Marlene Sai gets goofy in 'South Pacific'
|Audio: Marlene Sai does her Bloody Mary hustling stance, trying to sell her souvenir wares|
|Audio: Marlene Sai recalls Rosalie Stevenson's Bloody Mary's and how an early memory inspired her characterization|
|Photo gallery: 'South Pacific'|
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
Marlene Sai is widely known as a veteran recording star and a seasoned nightclub headliner; her dulcet contralto voice is legendary.
She once portrayed Lili'uokalani in a wrenching drama about the beloved queen, but she's never done a full-blown musical as an adult.
So her debut tonight as Bloody Mary in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific," under the auspices of the Hawaii Opera Theatre, is a milestone and a career stretch.
"I'm 65, pushing 66," said Sai, who was talking age, not speed, though she's been on artistic overdrive. "Imagine, I'm undergoing a brand-new experience at 65. I'm on Medicare, Social Security. I've done it all."
As the Tonkinese character who hawks souvenirs to GIs and tries to find her daughter Liat a suitable mate, Sai — through Bloody Mary's antics — is showing a side of her personality and performing breadth only her close pals know.
"Bloody Mary enables me to be a little goofy," said Sai, whose pals call her by her nickname, Goofy. "My friends know I can be crazy; many people think I'm prim and proper from my earlier Waikiki shows."
She has early-childhood connections to the beloved musical — as one of the little dancers in a show that was staged at Ruger Theatre (now the Diamond Head Theatre) when she was 8 or 9.
"I remember Lorraine Dove was Nellie Forbush, Carol Kapu (Sam Kapu's sister) was Liat, and I remember a big, large lady was Bloody Mary," Sai said.
She couldn't recall the actress' name at first (it was hula and dance luminary Rosalie Stevenson), but vividly remembered "the hard time she had, saying one of the lines, 'You stingy bastard.' The director kept asking for more, louder. So she shouted, 'Stingy bastard!' very loudly, until the director said, 'Yes!' It was hysterical."
Her HOT entry was somewhat serendipitous.
"I was at my regular weekly session with (voice coach) Neva Rego and she asked me if I'd seen this ad thing (about 'South Pacific'), that they were looking for a local Bloody Mary," Sai said.
One day at her day job as president of the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts, in the Musicians Union Building on Kapi'olani Boulevard, not far from the Hawaii Opera Theatre headquarters on Waimanu Street, she encountered Henry Akina, HOT honcho, coming out of a driveway, and she mentioned the Bloody Mary search.
"Yes, we're looking, did somebody call you?" he wondered. Then Karen Tiller, HOT executive director who's directing the musical, walked out and was introduced to Sai.
Sai inquired about the audition, tried out, landed the part.
Worried about re-acclimating herself to the musical, she called the library about the availability of a CD or DVD of the movie. "Then I saw, one day, on TNT or some cable channel, that 'South Pacific,' the movie with Mitzi Gaynor (as Nellie Forbush) was on, so I watched."
Then a New York casting director, learning Sai was cast by HOT for Bloody Mary, found her through The Advertiser, and arranged a Honolulu audition for the Bloody Mary part for a planned Broadway revival at Lincoln Center in February. Sai was a finalist; singer-actress Loretta Ables Sayre has been tapped to go through one more audition hurdle.
Simply put, Bloody Mary has been bloody good fun, she said.
"You can throw in a little pidgin and localize her a bit," Sai said. "Even in singing, instead of 'other,' you say 'udder.'
"One hundred dollah," she bursts into character. "You like? You buy? You like more? I trade you this. ..."
Bloody Mary is a tita of sorts, said Sai, a trait that comes easily for her.
"She's rascal, what we call kolohe. She's got attitude; she stands up for her position; and the GIs teach her a lot of things and she says what she learns, very repetitive," said Sai.
Director Tiller said Sai worked long and hard to find the essence of Bloody Mary.
"Marlene is a born performer, and this performance is a natural progression for her," said Tiller. "I think she would agree the hardest part of the role for her was getting the dialogue into her mind and body. We worked some extra reading time into the schedule for her ... and once she was off book, the role of Bloody Mary has utterly blossomed for her. She truly is a stage animal, and that is not learned; it is born in you."
Further, Sai brought much to the HOT plate. "Marlene has such a wonderful spirit, and it works beautifully on- and off-stage for our production," Tiller said. "I think her Bloody Mary is funny, complicated and sympathetic. In the rehearsal process, she is a great colleague and host to our out-of-town performers. She is a gracious person and this shines through at every moment."
Sai speaks fondly of her operatic colleagues such as Louis Otey (Emile de Becque), Curt Olds (Luther Billis), Kip Wilborn (Lt. Joseph Cable) and Michelle Jennings (Nellie Forbush), and has enjoyed the 'ohana of a performing ensemble.
"I think most shows gain that sense of ensemble as you move through the rehearsal process," said Tiller. "But then there is the rare show when the chemistry between performers, as actors and colleagues, is truly special. We are lucky enough on 'South Pacific' to have the latter of the two. Three of the leads have been friends for over 20 years, and though that might, in some circumstances, hinder the creation of chemistry between the other leads, that has not happened here.
"There is a real sense of family, of camaraderie, of challenging each other to perform at the highest level. We are also having a great time in rehearsal; there is humor and thoughtful commentary about the process. It's a rare group and a real pleasure and honor to work with each of them."
As a veteran club performer and recording artist, Sai knew her first stint in a legit musical required a different kind of delivery and strategy.
"We entertainers are used to having a mike right in front of us," she said. Here, she's doing the operatic stretch — singing without a mike, projecting to the far reaches of the hall, with only floor mikes to pick up dialogue.
"It's a style that I was not accustomed to; I have a pretty big voice, but mine is not trained this way (in the context of a musical or opera). Neva (her voice coach) helped open me up to this; and so did Michael Ching, our musical director. I've had to work on a different kind of projection."
Years ago, "Bali Ha'i," one of Bloody Mary's signature tunes about a mystical island, was part of Sai's Waikiki repertoire. But she hasn't sung "Bali Ha'i" for at least two decades. "I think the last time was with Ed Kenney in the Monarch Room," she said with warm reflection. "I think we even did the 'Twin Soliloquies,' too."
The mother of two grown daughters, Sai said Bloody Mary is a mom who cares about her daughter — despite her questionable demeanor and style.
"She wants to find the right guy for her Liat; she sees him in Lt. Cable. 'He's sexy, sexy guy,' " she said with the dialect and intonation of Bloody Mary. "All this aura embraces him; Bloody Mary brings them together and says they can make love all day, no need work. 'I go work for you, I hustle,' " she utters in character about her huckstering and entrepreneurial skills.
"For me, it's a great chance to strip away the glamour, the polish, have fun. And be Goofy."
A musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, with book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan; based on two stories from James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific"; produced by the Hawaii Opera Theatre
Premieres at 8 p.m. today; repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (military and group night), 4 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Aug. 3, 2 p.m. Aug. 4 (family matinee) and 4 p.m. Aug. 5
Regular performances, $20-$75; military (ID required) and group night (minimum purchase of 20 tickets required), all seats $25; family matinee, $10 children, $25-$35 adults
WHO'S WHO IN THE CAST
Louis Otey — Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner
Michelle Jennings — Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse
Curt Olds — Luther Billis, the Seebee
Kip Wilborn — Lt. Joseph Cable, the Marine on a spy mission
Marlene Sai — Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese souvenir dealer
U'ilani Kapuaakuni — Liat, Bloody Mary's daughter
Lenny Klompus — Harbison, the commander
Warren Fabro — Henry, servant to de Becque
Reach Wayne Harada at firstname.lastname@example.org.