By Katie Pynes Anetsberger
Disney’s Moana Jr., The Nebraska Communities Playhouse, June 23, 2023 7:30PM
If you are the parent of small children, it’s likely that you, like me, have spent weeks of your life listening to the hit song, “How Far I’ll Go”. I have fond memories of my two (now almost seven) year old, imagining our couch to be her canoe, as she stood precariously on the arm, singing loudly and setting sail across our living room to restore the heart of Te Fiti. A beloved movie since 2016, the stage adaptation of Disney’s Moana Jr. successfully brings the same heart and beauty to a captivated audience.
Moana is a story of courage, selflessness and a search for independence all set within the framework of Polynesian mythology and culture. I was struck by the respect with which a group of Nebraska kids celebrated another culture, and the obvious work that the adults put in to facilitate this (see Director Jillian Hauschild’s thoughtful notes in the program).
The original story, book adapted by Susan Soon He Stanton and arranged for the stage by Ian Weinberger, follows Moana, daughter of an island chief, as she struggles between the wishes of her parents, and the burning desire to explore the ocean. When their island becomes imperiled, Moana chooses to leave the safety of the island behind her, and seek out Maui, demi-god of the wind and sea to restore order to the natural world and save her people. In many ways, this is the story of every young person who eventually leaves behind the ‘known’ for the ‘unknown’ to follow their own calling in life. Moana’s selfless choice does save her people in the end, but it’s not all smooth sailing (pun intended), and not everything or every person is as they seem.
In contrast to the original 2016 movie, the stage adaptation includes several alterations and additions. For example, the animal sidekicks from the film, Pua the pig and Hei Hei the chicken, are still Moana’s loyal companions, but onstage they are islanders, providing the actors the opportunity to speak and sing. Also included are some brilliant new songs by the talented musicians Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina & Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I found to be great additions.
The opening scene showcased the beautiful and effective set, designed by the director and built by Mike Weekly, and painted by the cast, crew and family of cast members. Aspects like these make NCP one of my favorite theatre venues to visit because the community’s dedication to the fine arts is so evident and refreshing. I found myself entertained and impressed by the clever choreography (Amanda Dewey, choreographer), especially in the opening scene “In the Beginning” as well as all of the ocean choreography, performed by multiple members of the ensemble. There were several very talented dancers in the ensemble–watch out Broadway!
The Moana ensemble, composed of actors ages 9-17, as a whole performed a cohesive, enthusiastic and well-prepared show. Each and every one should be incredibly proud of their achievement. These young actors really put their hearts on the stage, and it showed. Each large ensemble performance worked well, but my favorite was “You’re Welcome” which was brilliantly done. Some individual standout performances included the three Chief Ancestors (Kira Ann Showalter, Lexi Lovette and Esther Robinson) with their outstanding vocals, Tamatoa (Sam Lanik) and his Claws (Edie Ulrich & Tucker Lanik) with their brilliant singing and comedy, Grandma Tallah (Eliana Handley) in her heartfelt performance and last but not least, the title role Moana (Ila Kaye Havelka) and her counterpart Maui (Sawyer James Elley) who as a pair, carried the show.
At only an hour run time (plus a 15 minute intermission), this is a perfect first theatre experience for little audience members. My mini-reviewers, ages 4 & 6, sat in silent awe for the entire performance. I found myself moved as well to see the next generation of talented young people, not only putting on a great performance, but also inspiring all of the little ones in the audience. I highly encourage all to take the kids in your life (or yourselves!) to see this talented cast; you’ll thank me later! (You’re Welcome!)
If you go: Disney’s Moana Jr. will perform in the Nebraska Communities Playhouse, 217 Locust Street, Hickman, NE, June 24th, 29th, 30th and July 1st at 7:30PM & June 25th and July 2nd at 2:00PM. Tickets may be purchased at neplayhouse.com/.
Katie Pynes Anetsberger is an avid reader, aspiring writer, amateur artist and mother of three magical humans. A staunch supporter of the arts, she firmly believes, in the words of Dostoevsky “The world will be saved by beauty.”
As always, if you like this content and want to see more, please join our email list and like us on Facebook!