Onward and upward

The show goes on as fresh ideas enliven Maui OnStage

(Clockwise from far left) N. Andrew Toney, Michael Pulliam, Amy Lord, Stephen Webb, Jessica Nelson and Dejah Padon are the driving force behind Maui OnStage at the Historic Iao Theater. -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo

There are changes happening over at Maui OnStage at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku and excitement is brewing, and I’m not talking about the upcoming new season — although that’s poised to blow your socks off with the Neil Simon comedy “Rumors” opening Sept. 28.

Over the past few months, a changing of the guard has occurred. New Executive Director N. Andrew Toney has quietly and expertly taken the helm, and will be steering the theater group into the coming season and beyond.

Production Manager Amy Lord has joined the staff full time; Education Coordinator and Teacher Jessica Nelson continues to shepherd the thriving MOS Youth Theater program with the help of Maui girl Dejah Padon, the youth program assistant and new box office manager.

Michael Pulliam, the theater’s unofficial historian and purveyor of fascinating tales of yore, has had his role expanded — he is now the official curator and marketing director of the theater. Stephen Webb, delightful in his numerous roles onstage, has taken the job of production assistant.

The atmosphere emanating from the theater feels fresh and vibrant as it enters its 2018-19 season.

Lord (seated) and Toney discuss technical details for season opener, “Rumors.” -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo

Some people may recognize Toney from his time here back in 1988 (although you may remember him as Neil, he has since decided to go by his middle name). He served as the executive director of what was, at the time, the Maui Philharmonic Orchestra.

Toney left Maui to raise his two children in Oregon in 1991, but always felt he’d be back. Those children are now adults and are off living their lives — daughter Tai White-Toney is working on her PhD in Australia; son Shea White-Toney is going to China to teach English.

“Someone I was recently talking to told me that Maui called me home,” smiled Toney.

Growing up in a blue-collar family in a small rural town of approximately 500 people in Indiana, Toney planned on becoming a high school orchestra or band director — he was in band and was the marching band drum major for two years.

“Getting a music scholarship to study at Ball State was so wonderful and exciting for me,” explained Toney. “I still remember the very first time I played in an orchestra. It was a thrilling ‘chicken-skin’ kind of moment for me.”

Padon and Toney talk over choreography plans. -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo

Once he entered Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., however, he recognized that his skill set was on the administrative side of the arts. He changed his major and earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and French, with a minor in instrumental music (he’s a “recovering oboist” — his words). He then earned a master’s in arts administration from Indiana University in Bloomington.

During and after college, he continued to play oboe and English horn semi-professionally — his quartet played at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in the early ’90s.

Toney passed his bar exam and earned his law license during an ill-conceived mid-life crisis — “I have no idea why I did that other than when I was a kid I thought it’d be fun to be a lawyer,” he chuckled. Toney was then hired as the theater manager at Williamette University in Salem, Ore. and was very content and settled there, when he heard about the opening at Maui OnStage.

“It was a bit of a hard decision [to leave Williamette]. My life was comfortable. I had friends. I was all situated,” mused Toney. “But part of me thought that was the reason to do it, take this job. I was complacent and very comfortable. I needed something else.”

Toney experienced an aha! moment while waiting to hear about the job. He was at home when he received an email about one of his references who was out of town and unreachable. In the moment Toney was reading the email, he received a text from his reference saying when he’d be back in town — that was when Toney realized there was something to this; it wasn’t just a normal job application.

Toney and Webb talk production details. -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo

“I felt within the first year [of moving to Oregon] that it was the biggest mistake I’d made in my life,” confided Toney. “When I moved here the first time, I thought I’d never leave.”

Since moving back, Toney has been reconnecting with friends and settling in by baking bread.

“In my heart, I always feel like a new place isn’t really my home until I’ve baked bread there.”

“With over 100 incredible applicants that applied for the executive director position, we could not be more pleased to welcome Andrew to Maui OnStage at the Historic Iao Theater,” relayed MOS Board of Directors President Ron Kenar. “We look forward to his experience, enthusiasm and leadership taking our community theater to new heights.”

Another key role that needed to be filled was production manager. That job went to Lord. A Chicago native, she moved around a lot in her early years due to her father’s job as an auto industry executive.

Amy Lord is the new Production Manager charged with overseeing that production goes off without a hitch. -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo

Lord wisely heeded her father’s advice to learn everything she could about theater so she’d always find work. She attended Columbia College in Chicago and studied in England before returning to the U.S. Her background includes skills such as master carpenter, master electrician and theater stage manager — she’d even worked at Harpo Studios, home of the “Oprah” show.

Lord moved to Maui to start a family. Gifted with a son, she quickly made her mark as jack-of-all-trades, at one time owning a wellness center in Makawao and running her own handyperson business before becoming stage manager of the MACC. In 2008, she returned to being her own boss as she assisted Maui high schools by teaching technical aspects of theater.

Lord’s first show with MOS was as lighting designer for 2014’s hit holiday offering, “Elf the Musical.”

“My job is to ensure that all aspects of the show are on time and on budget, doing whatever it takes,” offered Lord proudly. “It also means making sure the building is in working order and safe for the audiences to come into.”

“The best part of this job is seeing the whole show come together, and seeing the audience and actors enjoying what they are seeing and doing.”

N. Andrew Toney, the new executive director of Maui Onstage, relished the chance to return to Maui. -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo

Nelson has been the education coordinator and teacher for the past year and a half. Having moved here from Oregon 10 years ago with her husband, Joe, a math teacher at H.P. Baldwin High School. Nelson was teaching first grade at Kihei Elementary when she became involved with MOS’s Creative Critters program designed for kids 4 to 6 years old. She realized she had a real passion for teaching kids theater.

Her current responsibilities include choosing the youth productions to be staged, coordinating the MOS adult and youth classes, and teaching and directing classes and productions. Nelson and her husband are the proud parents of a one-year-old daughter, Anuhea, who has already shown a passion for theater and music after attending her first show, “Winnie the Pooh Kids,” when she was 10 months old.

“Andrew has been so supportive of the youth program,” enthused Nelson. “MOS has a wonderful and growing youth program, and we hope to continue making it better with every class and production that we do.”

The biggest shoes to fill, bar none, are those of retiring box office manager extraordinaire, “Box Office Judy” Halip. Wanting to spend more time with her husband, Norman, and her grandson, Ben, Halip broke the news to MOS that she believed it was time to pass her ticket duties on to someone new.

Lucky for MOS, Padon stepped up and offered to take on the box office role. Padon is a Baldwin High graduate who participated in Maui Youth Theatre (pre-cursor to Maui Academy of Performing Arts) when she was very young. Classes at Baldwin with renowned drama teacher Sue Anne Loudon along with performances with Maui Community Theatre (as MOS was previously known) guided her education in the arts.

Although she, like Lord, attended Columbia College briefly after high school, she realized she needed a gap year. She returned home to Maui and was immediately cast in MOS’s “A Chorus Line” in ’94.

Amazingly, she was scouted by a producer from Seattle during that show and threw herself wholeheartedly into a 13-year-long dream career as a professional dancer. That career took Padon to places such as Japan, Reno and Las Vegas.

Her last endeavor before returning to Maui was as executive dance director and head choreographer for Sin City Comedy and Burlesque, which was contracted with Celebrity Cruise Line on five ships with destinations around the world.

Padon works with Nelson to keep the youth program going strong. Presenting four youth performances each year, along with seasonal classes to the community, Padon and Nelson provide youth and adults an outlet to express themselves in a safe and friendly environment, as well as to nurture an appreciation for the arts.

“I love working with the youth and watching them grow,” professed Padon. “There is something special when you are a part of these aha! moments with them.

“As box office manager, I am the first person people have a relationship with whether it is buying tickets, signing up for classes, auditioning or ushering for a show.

“It’s a very important job, and I only hope to live up to my predecessor and mentor, Judy Halip.”

Padon’s daughter, Makena, is active in MOS’s youth program and loves it. Her husband, John, was producer of the show “An Evening with Frank and Dean,” which played to astounding reviews in January 2017. Her son, Macallan, currently has no theatrical aspirations, but the family feels all hope is not lost.

Much of what people know about the history of the theater is due to the diligent work of its Curator and Marketing Director Michael Pulliam (columnist for this paper’s Backstage feature in Maui Scene). Pulliam has been with MOS since 2008, when he was hired to help plan the theater’s 80th anniversary events.

Pulliam had been active in theater since childhood. His father was a television executive who took his family on trips to see Broadway shows and tours.

As an adult, he has worked at a variety of theaters around the country including The Cable Car Theater in San Francisco, the Steppenwolf in Chicago and the Friars Club of Beverly Hills in California.

Another jack-of-all-trades, Pulliam is strongest promoting, marketing, managing special events (such as the Maui Fringe Theater Festival) and directing MOS main stage productions (such as “The Addams Family” in 2015, along with this season’s “The Pirates of Penzance” in March, 2019).

Back in 2012, Pulliam was instrumental in having the Historic Iao Theater’s resident ghost, lovingly known as “Emma,” recognized during a taping of the SYFY Channel’s series “Haunted Collector.”

As MOS’s “Radar O’Reilly,” Pulliam is the go-to man for information about the theater, past or present.

“We have a great new team with decades and decades of theater experience on Maui and the Mainland,” professed Pulliam. “The six of us are big dreamers and would love to see Maui OnStage continue to expand as an artistic organization — be it lavish musicals, youth theater, cultural events or original plays.”

Production assistant Webb is well-known on stage. Audiences may remember how well he held his own in a show abundant in talent and standout characters, playing Wednesday Addam’s boyfriend, Lucas Beineke, in 2015’s “The Addams Family: A New Musical,” or as the poignant Clifford Bradshaw in 2018’s outstanding production of “Cabaret.”

Born and raised on Maui, Webb was homeschooled his entire life. He discovered his love of performing when he took singing classes at University of Hawaii Maui College.

Beginning as many do, Webb was a familiar face at MOS as a volunteer since 2015. A little over a year ago, his hard work was rewarded and he was offered the position of production assistant. Webb “mainly does whatever [he’s] told,” and loves the physical labor aspect of his job.

“There is something to be said for the physical, psychological and spiritual benefits one receives from labor that requires a lot of kinetic exertion,” he thoughtfully explains.

In his time away from the theater, Webb moonlights as the bass drummer for the Isle of Maui Pipe Band, and has occasionally been seen around the theater in full kilt regalia.

The buzz heard within Maui’s theater community is how excited everyone is about the future of MOS.

Kristi Scott, managing and artistic director of ProArts Playhouse in Kihei, expressed that she is “very excited to see the direction of the new administration and hope we can find ways to work and grow together. As there are only the three big theaters [on Maui], I look forward to greater cooperation between all of us.”

David C. Johnston, executive and artistic director of MAPA, is equally “looking forward to getting to know Andrew and collaborating with him and others to build a thriving theatre community on Maui.”

With a sense of excitement and freshness abounding, the future of MOS at the Historic Iao Theater looks bright indeed. A stellar upcoming season is planned; strong youth shows for keiki and teens ages 5 to 17, youth and adult acting and dance classes continue; and deep community ties flourish with shows such as the Maui Fringe Theater Festival.

“The board is so excited to have Andrew at the helm of the Iao Theater,” enthused Randol Leach, vice president of MOS board of directors. “With his vast experience and know-how, great shows will go on, and the theater will continue our wonderful youth programs that benefit the local community.”

“Every person I have met has been so warm and welcoming,” concluded Toney. “I realize that my new position is big and demanding, but I also know that it will be insanely rewarding — most things worth doing require a fair amount of energy.

“I have felt great about Maui OnStage and this job since my very first contact with the organization, so I’m just delighted to finally be moved and ready to dig in!”

“We have a lot of new players, and it has been really inspiring how the staff has been supporting each other,” marveled Padon. “We all want the same goal, and that is to make Maui OnStage and the Historic Iao Theater flourish.”

* Catherine Kenar can be reached at ckenar@mauinews.com.

Jessica Nelson (from left), Michael Pulliam and N. Andrew Toney share a story and a laugh inside the Historic Iao Theater. -- The Maui News / CATHERINE KENAR photo