Wonderfully Wicked

Cliffton Hall

Kalaheo High grad Cliffton Hall returns home in the lead role of Fiyero in the acclaimed musical Wicked, a reimagining of the Wizard of Oz story. Here he is pictured with Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West (who turns out to be merely misunderstood). You’re sure to be charmed every witch way in the show that runs through Jan. 12

Kalaheo High alum Cliffton Hall, who once dreamed of being a professional surfer, returns home in the lead role of Fiyero in Wicked, the acclaimed musical that retells the Wizard of Oz story from another perspective

Ever since Wicked, in all its splendorous green glory (complete with a green witch and emerald kingdom), started exploding across national stages in 2003, its songs were snapped up by eager vocal students, to be featured at voice recitals, public chorus performances, school talent shows – just about everywhere you’d turn. Around the country, if not the globe, enthusiastic Wicked devotees were reveling superlatively on this new fantastic show they’d just watched, a reimagining of the Wizard of Oz, like it was a religious experience and anyone not yet part of the “in crowd” would wonder, wow, what’s all the fuss?

That being said, fans showing up in Las Vegas recently while Wicked was in town were understandably perplexed when not a single mention of the show greeted them at the airport, nor was it mentioned in or on buses, in their hotel coupon book, on fliers, splashed across billboards, nor shining in giant, glittery, lighted letters above the city.

Concerned about the total Wicked blackout – was it even really showing? – they looked into the matter and were surprised by the answer: The show was that big that it sold out the second it was announced. No need for ads.

The good news is no one has to head out of town to catch the hugely popular production because it’s coming to Neil Blais-dell Concert Hall.

When HonoluluPulse.com announced last year that Wicked would be premiering in Hawaii, a slew of eager posts went up begging, pleading for local boy Cliffton Hall to reprise his 2005 role as the male lead, Fiyero. Well, the theater gods heard the prayers and Hall will once again perform in his hometown, in a role he says completes his musical theater “trifecta.”

Photo courtesy ‘Wicked’

“I’ve been in three of the hugest mega blockbusters in the history of musical theater: Miss Saigon, Les Mis(erables) and Wicked. These are roles people die to play, and it’s just amazing that I’ll have gone to Hawaii with all three,” says Hall, who played lead roles in all three productions – Chris in Saigon, Marius in Le Mis. “When I look back on where I came from with Castle Performing Arts, when Ronald Bright came and spoke to me, to where I am now in life, I just thank God and feel so blessed.”

While a freshman at Kalaheo, Bright visited Hall’s English class one day, urging the students to try out for Castle’s upcoming production of The Music Man. A tiny spark was lit in the back of Hall’s mind. Acting sounded cool, but it wasn’t something he’d ever do – he was a surfer. When class ended and students filed out, Bright approached Hall and personally encouraged him to audition.

But Hall didn’t give it a second thought, he was too busy catching waves with his best buddy Robert Orosco at K-Bay’s secluded North Beach, and he was even placing well in surf contests.

“When people ask how it was growing up in Hawaii … I would throw on my board shorts and go to the beach before school and surf for about an hour, run home and sometimes not take a shower,” laughs Hall. “I’d just throw a shirt and slippers on and jump on the bus to go to school. I wanted to become a professional surfer.”

Soon after Bright’s visit, Hall was blind-sided by Orosco’s decision to try out for Kalaheo’s production of The Fantasticks, and he wanted Hall to join him. “What? Are you crazy? We’ve got a rep here, we’re surfers,” answered Hall. Neither boy sang, danced or acted, so Hall felt secure agreeing with Orosco’s proposition that if Orosco got the role, Hall would join him for the next tryouts that came along. Orosco landed the role.

The next tryouts were for Hello, Dolly! – not with Kalaheo, but with Castle Performing Arts – and Hall was hard-pressed to keep his bargain. Castle just felt too big time. He recalls the irony of staying up all night with his Marine dad, who had dissuaded him from the flightiness of a surfing career, yet here he was trying to guide Hall through Amazing Grace, purportedly Bright’s favorite song.

“My dad was a singer and he played guitar,” says Hall. “As I was growing up, I would try to sing with him and I’d just sing out of tune. He’d be like OK, just let daddy sing.”

At the audition the next morning with Castle, Hall says he totally bombed, but he’d been getting in some dance practice on the side, and the show being a dance showcase, he got in “by the skin of my teeth.”

Once he had broken onto the theater scene in earnest, his dance practice with none other than Marcelo Pacleb picked up, and the die-hard group became 24-VII Danceforce “because we practiced 24/7,” notes Hall. Eventually he was playing the lead in school and community productions, and when a national production of Les Miserables came through, the 16-year-old auditioned.

“I was way too young,” says Hall, “but they showed a lot of interest and encouraged me to keep taking voice lessons, which I did, with (local renowned voice coaches) Betty Grierson and Neva Rego.”

Cliffton Hall with wife Deedee and sons Kaeden and Brycen. Photo from Cliffton Hall

At age 18 the national tour of Miss Saigon was auditioning, with the very same casting directors who had vetted Hall when Les Mis came through. This time he was accepted. He dropped the music, piano, voice and acting classes he’d been taking at Wind-ward Community College (while preparing to attend a national college of the arts), and took off to L.A. with his buddy Orosco, who also had been accepted. They were both cast in the ensemble, playing dual roles as both Marines and Vietnamese, thanks to their hapa looks.

It was on that set, back in 1995, that Hall met his future wife Deedee, who was playing the lead role of Kim and had a voice “like butter.” The two returned to a production of Miss Saigon five years later, and have also both appeared in Wicked together. Deedee won’t be reprising her role as Nessarose, but she will be with her husband when Wicked comes to town, taking care of their boys, 7-year-old Kaeden Ryley and 1-year-old Brycen Taylor. Since the family currently lives in California, Brycen will be meeting his paternal grandparents, who still live in Hawaii, for the first time.

Meanwhile, Hall fans, Wicked fans, theater fans and anyone who enjoys explosive, spellbinding entertainment will be watching Hall shine onstage as the swashbuckling Fiyero as he navigates a love triangle with Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West (who it turns out isn’t so wicked, just misunderstood, primarily on account of her unusually virescent complexion), and Elphaba’s frenemy (OK, I’ve said it) Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The sets and costumes are lavish (all 14 semi trucks full), the scenes are full of humor (blonde jokes and green ones too) and surprising moments of pathos, while the script cleverly incorporates all of the primary characters from the Wizard of Oz. Elphaba – the sheer pace and vocal demand of her role (played by Dee Roscioli) will leave you breathless, torn between bowing in awe and jumping up in a standing ovation.

“Everybody loves the show, from kids all the way up,” says Hall. “I see a lot of men come, and of course they’re dragged by their wives or girlfriends, but at the end they’re the ones who are, like, oh my gosh, this was so exciting. It’s so different from your typical Sound of Music or Cats. It examines the difference between right and wrong, and what it means to be good. It’s inspiring, and I think it tugs at people’s hearts. With all the bullying that’s been going on, for kids it really opens their eyes and says don’t judge somebody on the outside, get to know them.”

And what of our handsome Fiyero?

“He’s a scandalacious playboy prince,” says Hall, borrowing a word from Wicked’s unique vocab list. “He’s got this way about him; his air is very cocky. He feels like he owns everything, like he’s owed everything. It’s a façade.”

Despite his star status, there’s no touch of Fiyero in Hall. As he stands on the stage amid the deafening applause, the big lights flooding over him, he’s filled with gratitude.

“When the light comes up, I smile and thank God that I’m working. At the end of the show, again, I’m grateful for what I have at this moment in time,” says Hall. “Right before I go out and bow, the audience is already emotionally on their feet, but then they’re just up and clapping and roaring and hooting and hollering. After two hours on stage, to be able to hear that gratification that they love the show, it’s just fulfilling,” he says, sighing deeply. “It’s a great feeling. You’re like, I affected them, wow, they listened, they laughed at what I said or did. And you hear all the oohs and ahs. The cool thing is people have heard the music, but to see it on stage, it’s so heart-tugging.”

The local boy hasn’t lost his roots. He plans to make a beeline for Zippy’s mac salad and chili, which he mixes together, the second he gets home.

“Being in Hawaii is the greatest,” says Hall, flashing his movie star smile, then his voice softens, “but to be back on Oahu vacationing and working, it’s just unbelievable.”

It’s a special moment for the production as well, which is experiencing its own full circle of sorts. During a snorkeling trip in Hawaii back in 1996 was when the inspirational bug latched onto Wicked’s Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz after a friend introduced him to a captivating novel fresh off the press by Gregory Maguire. It was the Wizard of Oz, but from the Wicked Witch’s perspective, and Schwartz was compelled to instantly look into production rights.

Cliffton Hall (second from left) in the lead as Danny Zuko in Castle Performing Arts’ production of ‘Grease’ in 1992. Also pictured: Craig Stouffer, Jason Wela, Robert Orosco and Alex Selma. Photo from Cliffton Hall

As they say, the rest is history

Wicked plays Nov. 22 (yes, it debuts Thanksgiving Day) through Jan. 12, 2013, at Blaisdell Concert Hall. For reservations, call 1-800-745-3000 or visit broadwayinhawaii.com.

Folks can vie for special $25 orchestra seats by showing up at the box office two-and-a-half hours before any performance and putting their name in a lottery drum (cash only, must have ID, limit of two tickets per lottery winner).

Wicked ticket sales helped raise funds for Pali Momi Women’s Center, and in honor of Pali Momi’s patients and hardworking “Health Care Heroes,” nominated by thankful patients, a ceremony is planned after the Nov. 25 matinee performance. At 4 p.m., members of the cast of Wicked will welcome Pali Momi staff, patients and their families to the Neal Blaisdell Center lawn for performances by some of the stars of the show, including Cliffton Hall.

At that time a drawing from the pool of nominated Pali Momi employees will announce Pali Momi’s Health Care Hero. The families of the winner and the person who nominated the winner will both receive free admission to the show.

Wicked begins promptly, with no exceptions for late seating. Late arrivals will be asked to wait up to 20 minutes for a convenient time to be seated.