One of New Zealand's most beloved comedy troupes is reuniting to bring a touch of magic - and biting social commentary - to next year's Auckland Arts Festival.

Performing for the first time in 12 years, The Naked Samoans - Dave Fane, Mario Gaoa, Shimpal Lelisi, Oscar Kightley, Robbie Magasiva and Heto Ah hi - are the headline local comedy/theatre act at the 2018 festival.

While the AAF doesn't release its full programme until Tuesday, incoming artistic director Jonathan Bielski shared the news with the Weekend Herald because the reunion show is bound to sell out.

Founder member Dave Fane and Robbie Magasiva, who joined in 2001, say they can't wait to get back on stage with their best mates and while The Naked Samoans last performed in 2006, they always knew they'd be back together again one day.

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"It's fun when you're working with your greatest mates," says Fane, who takes a break from rehearsals this week to play US civil rights leader Martin Luther King in the play The Mountaintop. "It's kind of like being back in third form and coming back after the summer holidays and laughing about what you got up to."

The Naked Samoans Do Magic will see them play Auckland's The Civic, their biggest venue ever, but Magasiva says they're taking it in their stride.

"It is a lot of seats... but I'm sure we can do it," he says.

Magasiva, recently returned from Australia where he filmed season six of the TV prison drama Wentworth, says it marks a new chapter for The Naked Samoans.

"I don't like to admit it but maybe we are a bit older and wiser," he says. "In the past, we spent 80 per cent of our time in rehearsals just laughing at one another and the script wasn't ready until a couple of weeks before opening night, but this time, we're actually really organised."

Started in 1998 to keep themselves in work, The Naked Samoans gained acclaim for a brand of social satire and physical comedy which celebrated members' Pacific Island culture and identity. Fane, Gaoa, Lelisi and Kightley went on to create the cartoon series bro'Town, which ran for five seasons, while "the Nakeds" also wrote and starred in the hit films Sione's Wedding and Sione's 2: Unfinished Business.

Previously in charge of programming at the Sydney Opera House for 13 years, Jonathan Bielski was last year named the AAF's artistic director, and wanted an act that was "quintessentially Auckland" to celebrate the city, the festival becoming an annual event and his return to New Zealand.

With fond memories of The Naked Samoans' "naughty, clever and subversive comedy", he says he couldn't think of a better group to bring to the Auckland stage especially as 2018 marks the comedy troupe's 20th anniversary.

"They're sophisticated thinkers and writers who use comedy as a vehicle for smart social commentary," says Bielski. "They might present the persona of slightly buffoonish Pacific Island guys, but that's not what they're really like at all."

He also likes the fact that the troupe celebrates male friendship: "You can clearly see that underneath it all, they have a great respect for one another, love and camaraderie."

The Naked Samoans in the early days.
The Naked Samoans in the early days.

Fane says he and Kightley were already kicking around ideas for a reunion show when Bielski approached them. They'd been talking to internationally acclaimed theatre director Nina Nawalowalo whose The Conch theatre company tells Pacific stories across the globe.

But Nawalowalo also spent years working in London with magicians and illusionists. Now directing the touring show Magicians, which arrives in Auckland next week, she wanted to add an extra dimension to the Nakeds' work.

It means they'll do tricks on stage and star in a story premised on the idea that the group split up, headed in different directions and were reunited after a mysterious old magician's death. Rather than skit-based sketches where they portray different characters throughout, the Nakeds play distorted versions of themselves.

Fane says in this alternate reality, he's become a celebrated KFC chef while Magasiva lives in Dunedin and is transitioning to become a palagi. Director Nawalowalo says it's a story about finding hope in a world where that seems to be diminishing.

"I think we're creating a very, very rich and beautiful show that will fill The Civic space well."

What: The Naked Samoans Do Magic
Where & when: Auckland Arts Festival - The Civic, March 22 - 25

• See www.nzherald.co.nz/culture for more on Dave Fane's turn as Martin Luther King and Nina Nawalowalo's The Magicians both opening in Auckland next week.

Auckland Arts Festival's must-see shows

Auckland Arts Festival announces its full 2018 programme on Tuesday, but a number of shows already been revealed including six it shares with the International Festival in Wellington. So far, our picks for top nights out are:

Family Friendly: We've had circuses from Canada and Australia, home-grown ones and European cirque artists but never one from Vietnam. The 15 acrobats from Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam depict life in villages and cities in a country changing rapidly. A O Lang, St James Theatre, Wellington March 8 - 11 and The Civic, Auckland March 14 - 18.
Date Night: If you want sultry and sensual, jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant dubbed by Wynton Marsalis a "bright new star" and invited to perform alongside him at New York's The Lincoln Centre. Cecile McLorin Salvant, Michael Fowler Centre, March 13 and Auckland Town Hall, March 15.
Get a group together: It's got to be The Naked Samoans Do Magic but watch this space - there's more to come next week which could make for some tough decisions about what to see.

Dance lovers: It'll be quite something to see a cast of up to 40 performers on stage at one time in Giselle, choreographed by dance world superstar Akram Khan but how Czech choreographer Jiri Bubenicek transforms iconic NZ film The Piano into a full length ballet also intrigues. Giselle, Aotea Centre, March 1 - 4; The Piano - The Ballet, Aotea Centre, March 8 - 10.
NZ history re-told: Speaking of dance, NZ choreographer Michael Parmenter is back for the first time in 10 years with a large-scale work which tells the story behind the 1863 wreck of the Orpheus, our worst maritime disaster. It stars the NZ Dance Company, Latitude 37 baroque ensemble and US tenor Aaron Sheehan. OrphEus - a dance opera, The Civic, March 9 - 11 and the Opera House, Wellington, March 16 and 17.
Take your parents: Any of the above but NZ Opera's first show for 2018 has intergenerational appeal. Part opera and part musical, Candide is Voltaire's satirical tale with Bernstein's score and will see the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra draw on everything from European operetta to Latin American dance rhythms. Candide, Auckland Town Hall, March 23 - 25.
Something different: It's entertainment for those who like a helping of provocation. George Orwell's terrifying masterpiece has been adapted for stage by a UK/Australian theatre-making partnership and runs for the duration of the festival. 1984, ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 9 - 25.