COSTA MESA — Alone on the expansive stage, Jake Shimabukuro looked like he was about to launch into a stand-up routine.
An audience of some 2,000 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall was waiting for him to strum four short strings. With the modest ukulele and a knack for storytelling, Shimabukuro's March 24 performance evoked a wide range of emotions.
"There's no one equal to that," Huntington Beach resident Shirley Orlando said of Shimabukuro, widely considered one of the top ukulele players.
"It was just unparalleled," said Orlando, who owns the Island Bazaar ukulele store in Surf City. "There are very few people that could compete on the stage."
She gambled and used her credit card to buy 150 tickets for her groups' members. Orlando offers lessons and a place for people to play.
"It was a pretty scary thing," she said. "But everyone came through and we sold every ticket."
Playing such a large venue thrilled Shimabukuro, 34, whose career took off in 2006 when a New York TV show posted a video of him on YouTube covering George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in Central Park.
"It's really a rush," he said after the show. "It's like for surfers, when you're catching that huge wave."
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented Shimabukuro's performance as part of JapanOC, the season-long festival showcasing Japanese and Japanese-American arts and culture. Tickets for the show were sold out weeks in advance.
A fifth-generation Japanese American, Shimabukuro was born in Hawaii and first taught traditional island melodies by his mother.
Top 40 tunes and rock intrigued Shimabukuro after he first learned traditional Hawaiian songs. Soon, he challenged himself and the ukulele to match sounds from other instruments. He started performing in Honolulu, playing in local venues and coffee shops.
On Thursday, he drew a variety of fans, some who took up the ukulele because of him.
Marshall Lally, 30, of Newport Beach, said he started playing after watching Shimabukuro on YouTube.
"He changed music for me," said Lally, who had previously played the guitar.
Shimabukuro said people in fast-paced Orange County tend to fall for the ukulele's sound.
"They just want to relax," he said. "It brings a lot of joy — it's almost like a child laughing, like kids laughing."
The inspiration for many of Shimabukuro's songs actually comes from his own childhood. Before each song, Shimabukuro told the story behind it. First dates and early relationships inspired one of his songs, "Boy Meets Girl." Its melody reflected that feeling of nervousness, rapid heartbeats and uncertainly, but also hope for something deep and meaningful, he said.
He compensated for the ukulele's limited range by pausing at times, creating a mood of poignancy by letting silence fill the auditorium. In other numbers he strummed as fast and furious as a flamenco guitarist. He patted his chordophone like a drum and moved his body effusively. Sometimes he'd strike a pose like a rock guitarist wailing an anthem.
His ability to make the ukulele sound like a piano or guitar mesmerized people at Thursday's show.
"It's amazing what he can do with that instrument," said Mission Viejo resident Lisa Serrantino, who began playing the ukulele as a hobby with her husband, Jay, five years ago. "It just blows me away."