Curtain set to rise on King Kekaulike theater

School principal has fingers and toes crossed for opening in time for spring musical

The new King Kekaulike High School performance facility is nearly ready to open. Principal Mark Elliott is hoping to have it open by April 20, which is the first night of the school’s spring musical, “Lady Pirates of Captain Bree.” The theater has seating for more than 400 and includes a hydraulic orchestra pit and other state-of-the-art features, school officials said. KETRA ARCAS photo

King Kekaulike High School Principal Mark Elliott wakes up every morning with his “toes and fingers crossed” that the school’s performing arts theater will be ready to go on April 20.

The school’s spring musical, “Lady Pirates of Captain Bree,” is set to take place that night. For years, the arts program was stuck in the school cafeteria and interrupted by gym noise. The area was inadequate for lighting and staging. Students, led by veteran theater teacher Chris Kepler, made it work.

“It looks like it’s a go, but you never can tell,” Elliott said Monday morning of the $35 million, state-of-the-art center on the Pukalani campus.

Work remains to be done on the theater, he said, but the main piece of the puzzle to start performances will be obtaining the building’s certificate of occupancy.

Just last week, performing arts students went into the center for the first time to get acquainted with the building.

King Kekaulike High School senior Kai Richardson, the Drama Club head technician for sound and lights, poses recently in the sound booth of the new performance facility at the Pukalani campus. Richardson has been in musical productions and chooses to work behind the scenes in the sound booth. IGNACIO ARCAS photo

It was “among the happiest I’ve seen a group of young people in my life,” Elliott said.

Some students cried; others jumped for joy.

“It was one of the happiest days I had as an educator, seeing the look on those kids’ faces,” Elliott said. “They have been excited for years.”

“It was (like) Christmas at 5 years old and Santa just showed up.”

“It was like our first maiden voyage in there,” Kepler joked, alluding to the pirate-themed musical set to christen the new theater. “They were filled with glee, gratitude and honor for sure.”

“Lot of chicken-skin moments,” Kepler said.

With seating for more than 400, the performing arts theater has acoustic tiles and an array of complicated technical features, such as an orchestra pit designed to rise and fall on hydraulic lifts. According to the project’s environmental impact statement, the theater building totals 22,123 square feet, including its lobby, house, stage and back-of-the-house support functions. The control room is elevated above the last row of seats, enough so that operators can see over the heads of the audience members standing in the last row, the study said. The control booth has stations for lighting, stage management, video and sound control operators.

It will be available for all students, such as those in fine arts, band and the Hawaiian immersion program.

Kepler said that for his students, the visit was just scratching the surface because they can’t occupy it yet, but they went to get acquainted, “feeling out the space.”

There are 50 King Kekaulike students in the musical along with nine school staff member children, or the “dramaaticans,” who are younger students being exposed to the arts, Kepler said.

The musical performances will be staged April 20 through 22 and April 27 through 29. The Friday and Saturday showings are both at 7 p.m. The Sunday showings are at 3 p.m. Tickets will be available on April 1, Kepler said.

A few months after Elliott became principal of the school in 2015, ground was broken for the center.

“It’s been quite the journey,” he added, noting weather and other factors all came into play with construction.

Before this school year began, Elliott noted some of the challenges for the theater included its state-of-the-art technology. For example, only one company manufactures and installs the special acoustic tiles.

Elliott said that in August he wasn’t sure when the center would be complete. But he was aiming for it to be open for the spring musical. And it appears the timing will be perfect.

There will be an intimate blessing on April 20.

This is a way to honor and thank those that made the building possible.

In 2008, Kepler succeeded the retired drama teacher Carolyn Johnson, who with former King Kekaulike Principal Susan Scofield and community members and students fought for funding to build the performing arts center with help from Upcountry state Rep. Kyle Yamashita.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at