Review: Pacifica The Musical brings magic to the stage - but there's more to tell

By Vaimaila Leatinu'u

Members of the cast of Pacifica The Musical. / Dave Simpson

By Vaimaila Leatinu'u Te Rito journalism cadet

The Civic Theatre is the century-old taonga of the theatrical scene for Tāmaki Makaurau - capable of hosting the biggest productions across the motu.

And with Pacifica The Musical premiering there, I imagine history was made that night - being the first show at The Civic where crowds constantly showed their support for performers with shouts of "cheehoo!" from their seats.

It should be noted that the performers swap roles on different nights, so those I credit in this review may be different from another viewing.

The musical begins roughly 300 years ago when a young boy from a remote island loses a precious taonga, which curses his island and descendants.

The story then moves to modern-day Auckland. A young man named Tanga, played by Jerry-Moses Roebeck, learns about how his whakapapa connects to this lost treasure - prompting him to leave behind his budding love (Irene Folau) for answers to who he is.

It's a special experience - especially as I'm Māori and Samoan - to see brown people on The Civic's stage. From the sight of the stage to the seats in the crowd, it feels like home.

With the jukebox musical format becoming increasingly popular overseas, it's only fitting that Aotearoa - and specifically those who whakapapa to Te-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa (Pacific Ocean) - can have a homegrown version that evokes a more personal connection in the audience.

The true heart of the musical is in both the vocal performances and Hadleigh Pouesi's choreography, which the cast performed with tenacity. Watching kapa haka - with its stable and staunch movements - transition to a different Pasifika dance via fluid modern dance was an interesting blend.

It communicated to me the concept of balance - central to all Pasifika who have a history of travelling over rocky oceans via waka.

While there is plenty of spectacle on stage, the narrative - although structured well - falls short. There aren't many meaningful elements to mine from the story and although the songs are great selections, they don't have much weight in significant connection to the narrative.

In some instances, there were only tenuous connections between the songs and the plot. Stan Walker's Black Box, a break-up song, was used to convey the moment Tanga searched for his ancestral taonga.

A lot of these choices between narrative and waiata felt surface-level and not well thought-out.

The story relied on this love between Tanga and Venus, played by Irene Folau that night, but moved too quickly to establish a genuine connection.

The concepts of taonga and the significance it has for Māori and Pasifika cultures were similarly skirted over.

Given the audience make-up will inevitably be made up of non-brown faces, Pacifica runs the risk of homogenising Pasifika people, presenting our culture in a sanitised way acceptable to those on the outside.

The show's conception started with director, producer and writer Pak Peacocke. The entertainment industry heavyweight said the production is "for everyone, not just musical theatre fans, not just Pasifika people, but everyone who has a heartbeat".

This commercial cater-to-all approach towards mangling thousands of years of Pasifika whakaaro (thoughts), whakapapa, tikanga and culture to match the palate of everybody, ends up dropping the mana of the direct cultures they are trying to represent.

It is important to acknowledge that our individuality is as important as representation, especially when representing all of us in traditionally western spaces.

It also raises the question: Does a musical like this create another Korean-pop phenomenon? Where, globally, people have fanatically dived into the pop culture of South Korea, without much appreciation for South Korean history, perspective and culture itself?

I do acknowledge Nick Afoa, the brilliant vocal coach, who pointed out that this could be a window for non-Pasifika. Audiences may leave the musical wanting to know more about Pasifika culture, which is a valid perspective.

Additionally, the use of lighting in conjunction with the physical performances would paint pictures that define "must see" and is only accessible in this space.

Despite its flaws, Pacifica is an overall entertaining night out. The closing moments had the audience on opening night cheering and dancing in their seats.

The mood the musical generates is infectious and is worth seeing for the vibes alone.

Hopefully, a successful run here means in a few years we won't have to discuss the rarity of seeing Pasifika stories on a stage as big as this.

Pacifica The Musical plays until Sunday. For ticket information visit Ticketmaster.