Music and Lyrics by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Script Adaptation by Susan Soon He Stanton
Score Adaptation and Arrangements & Orchestrations by Ian Weinberger
Directed by Janet Philbrook
Stage Door Youth Theatre Fringe
Moana JR, the musical, is a shortened version of the 2016 Disney film which follows the journey of Moana as she embarks on an adventure across the Pacific to save her village. Moana JR was the first production of Stage Door Youth Theatre’s season; a production which has been a long time coming and one which was initially cast on zoom during lockdown.! Despite the many challenges that this company has faced (including a last-minute venue change!) the cast of 25 young people brought together a fantastic production, in which their enjoyment and enthusiasm shone through every number.
I received a warm welcome from Janet, Leeroy, and the team at their brand-new venue, Park High School, which offered a spacious and modern studio theatre. The stage was simply set with four backdrops to set the scene, and a warm wash of lighting.
The first number ‘In the Beginning’ set the scene with the introduction of the characters. Two of the ancestors acted as storytellers in this scene and really helped to build the atmosphere with their animated and focused delivery. Every member of the company brought something to the performance, but I have mentioned a few of the personal highlights for me.
Moana, played by Emilia Gibbons, offered a skilled and strong vocal performance. The song ‘How Far I Will Go’ gave me goosebumps, and the members of the audience were 100% in the palm of her hand. What a beautiful and confident performance. Maui, played by Lewis Sugden, really impressed me with his clear diction and projection. This was an accomplished and focused role by a talented young performer. The harmonies by Emilia and Lewis in ‘Warrior Face’ were particularly memorable.
I loved Katie Wellock’s sophisticated performance as Gramma Tala: her stage presence and energy simply sparkled, and she was very enjoyable to watch.
Edward Whittaker brought a buzz of energy as Tamatoa with his fun number ‘Shiny’. I thought that the use of Hannah Read and Sadie Carroll, as the claws, worked well, and the creative use of the sparkly wigs for the ensemble, together with the lighting, made this a visually impressive number. (This was also my daughter’s favourite number!)
Iris Robertshaw and Martha Lickess played a fabulous comedy double act as Pua and Hei Hei, which was a fun addition to the story.
There was some very impressive ensemble work throughout. I particularly loved the sound of the ancestors; together they made such a powerful and rich sounding chorus.
The minimal use of props, lighting and costume was effective, and it meant the performers had nowhere to hide. The direction was very creative, so the lack of set did not take anything away from the performance. For example, when the young people created the sea with blue cloths, it was simple but so effective. The technical team also never missed a cue, with the sound and lighting perfectly complimenting the performance.
The backstage team and chaperones should also be commended as the transitions of the young people coming on and off were smooth, with minimal backstage noise (which I imagine is not an easy feat with 25 excited young performers!). The young people confidently knew their entrances and exits, and the scenes moved swiftly from one to another. I also noted many of the actors staying in character until they were out of the audience’s sight lines – I think this is really important. I also appreciated the actors who always stayed in character and didn’t let their attention wander. These performers stood out as focused and professional.
Well done to the Stage Door team for bringing together an energetic, well-rehearsed, creative performance. It was a joy to watch a community of young people so deeply engaged with their performances of this empowering story. You definitely have some future stars in the making!