“Moana Jr.” just finished a successful run at the Multicultural Arts Center (MAC) with a series of impressive performances by local youngsters over the past weekend.
With the exception of some enthusiastic parents, no one could be more pleased than the three performing arts camp leaders who helped bring it all together: Madison Mitchell, program director; Brieanna Flores, stage manager and instructor; and Kayla Medina, the musical director and vocal instructor.
“I think we did a really good job of treating it as a real show, instead of a kid’s show,” Mitchell said. “We held them to greater standards than normal kids camps would, but I think the result was more the real theater experience and pushing them allowed them to get more out of it. Kids are capable of hard things.”
Flores interjected: “And I think the parents also appreciated that.”
Medina added: “And there were sometimes where the kids thought about it a little bit and we would say, ‘No that’s going to look cheesy,’ but in the end, they absolutely understood, and they thought it was a great show.”
The Flores-Medina-Mitchell trio was the driving force behind a five-week performing arts summer camp hosted at the MAC through ARTREE — the Arts and Education Reach Program. Since 2019, the three have been working on preparing and directing performing arts at the Multicultural Arts Center. Their other two productions include “High School Musical” that was performed in 2019, and last winter’s “The Grinch.”
“Moana Jr.” is a musical adaptation of the Disney movie “Moana,” and follows Moana’s journey as she sails away from her village of Montunui in search of the legendary demigod Maui. Along the journey, Moana is faced with several obstacles she must overcome in order to save her village from Te Ke, a destructive mountain that is destroying the crops in Montunui. The touching story is one anyone can relate to as Moana finds the inner strength within herself to heal her village.
Combining arts education with the summer camp experience, Flores, Medina and Mitchell designed the set, created props, and conducted rehearsals with the kids — all while learning about a new culture that included traditional dance and two languages: Tokelauan and Samoan.
“We also had to do a lot of research,” Medina added. “For instance, I built the Maui hook and I researched what the hook is made of, where it comes from. It comes from traditional necklaces they would wear and it’s made of fish bones, and so Maui’s hook is supposed to be a bone. We definitely had to do a lot of research.”
Mitchell explained: “Aunty Becky from the South Pacific Dance Company came and taught our kids a lesson on Polynesian Culture, and then came back and taught a dance. We then incorporated that dance into our show and also pulled from other Polynesian dances.
“We try to be as respectful as possible, none of us are Polynesian, so we had to be really careful in order to do it justice.”
Flores added: “We also had to do our research in the culture and find out what was appropriate.”
Colorful, traditional ensembles, and intricate makeup that included stenciled tattoos and tribal bands are just the tip of the iceberg with the show’s costume design. Almost everything was crafted together through items found at the thrift store, and the utensils were provided by the local shop Zane It!
“We made it happen,” one of the trio said, making them all laugh.
Costume design were all created by Dianne Core, the same costumer who was involved in many of the shows Mitchell was involved in while she was growing up in theater.
“We had such an awesome group of people who offered up their talents,” Mitchell said. “Growing up in the theater community we are the babies, and so the people that we grow up with want us to succeed, and so they are willing to offer up their talents to make it happen.”
“Our lighting designer — Robert Hypes — he used to run Playhouse Merced, and ran most of our children’s programs that we took part in growing up. It is very full circle for everyone involved. It’s pretty special.”
The summer program is a job the three thespian talents hold close to their hearts.
“We all did theater as children,” Flores said.
Mitchell added: “That was the most fun I ever had in theater. You got to spend five hours a day, every day, for four weeks with your friends putting on a show. It’s like shoving so much into a day and learning as much as you possibly can while still getting the summer camp experience… We want to continue recreating that.”
Next up, a performance in the Fall is expected to serve as an afterschool program through ARTREE at the MAC. It is still yet to be announced, but it is most definitely highly anticipated.