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‘Moana Jr.’

By Heidi Sutton

There is a well-known saying in the theater world — “the show must go on.” And even among a debilitating pandemic that has forced many theaters to temporarily close their doors, the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts has found a way to do that with another well-known saying — “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

In partnership with the Smithtown Historical Society, the theater is currently staging a colorful outdoor production of Disney’s “Moana Jr.,” and it could not have come at a better time as parents struggle to keep their children entertained with limited options. Through Aug. 15, the socially-distanced, one-hour show, presented with no intermission, will be held on the shaded grounds of the historical society’s Roseneath Cottage at various times throughout the week.

Rehearsals were already underway when the pandemic took hold, according to executive producer Michael Mucciolo, and then continued virtually until the end of June. “The first step was to see if the parents and kids had a desire to do the show in this new safer environment and if any did not then we wouldn’t have explored the idea any further. After a resounding yes we worked with our board, as well as legal and health professionals. Then we put out a request for volunteers to support us and without any of them we would not have felt comfortable with performing,” he explained in an email.

The decision to move the production outdoors came after the theater was approached by the Smithtown Historical Society (SHS). “It was the evolution of an idea after the SHS graciously offered the use of their space and to show the community what SHS has to offer in terms of tranquil outdoor spaces,” said Mucciolo.

Originally scheduled for April, the show opened on July 24 and has already sold out numerous performances.

“The response from the community has been amazingly positive. Some had concerns not having a full understanding of what this would be like but people have been very appreciative of all the hard work the cast, crew, and staff have done to make this happen in a safe way. The story of a girl facing uncertainty and loss, finding friendship and bravery is so important right now. It is especially at home in this open space framed within picturesque trees and the sounds of nature,” said Mucciolo.

Featuring songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, the musical introduces us to Moana (Gabriella Fugon), the strong-willed daughter of Chief Tui (Logan O’Leary) and his wife Sina (Priscilla Russo) who live on the Polynesian island of Motunui.

When a blight on the island causes the coconuts to turn black and the fish to disappear, Moana follows the advice of her grandmother (Gianna Oppedisano) and  embarks on a journey across the Pacific Ocean to find the demigod Maui (Michael Gualtieri) in hopes he will help her return the heart of Te Fiti (Savannah Shaw), the Polynesian goddess of earth and life, and save her people.

Along the way, the pair make a detour to Lalotai, the Realm of Monsters, to retrieve Maui’s magical fishhook from Tamatoa (Dori Ahlgrim/ Alia Romanelli), a giant coconut crab, and battle the lava demon Te Kā (Savannah Shaw).

Directed by Courtney Braun and Jordan Hue, with musical direction by Melissa Coyle, the stage adaptation follows the storyline closely and includes all of the wonderful songs in the film including “How Far I’ll Go,” “Shiny,” “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” and “You’re Welcome.”

The cast members, ranging in age from 11 to 17, do a tremendous job bringing the story of “Moana” to life on stage with special mention to Michael Gualtier who plays the demi-god Maui in a way that would make The Rock proud. His rendition of “You’re Welcome” is hilarious. But it is 17-year-old Gabriella Fugon, perfectly cast as Moana, who steals the show. Her beautiful rendition of “How Far I’ll Go” is breathtaking and when she sings “I am Moana” the audience will believe it too. She even looks like Moana!

The costumes by Ronald Green III, choreography by Courtney Braun and the incredible set by Mike Mucciolo tie the show together nicely.

Both the Smithtown Historical Society and the theater have taken many steps to make the performances as safe as possible for both the cast, crew, and audience members. “Studies have show your risk of being exposed to Covid-19 is 95% lower outdoors than indoors, because of wind dispersing and sunlight breaking down the virus does not allow for particles to concentrate like in a store or restaurant. Safety is not just from a business concern as members of the production team are also parents of cast members and so do not take lightly anyone’s health,” said Mucciolo.

The Cast: Dori Ahlgrim, Gabrielle Arroyo, Riley Ferraro, Gabriella Fugon, Michael Gualtieri, Aubrey Gulle, Derek Hough, Anabelle Kreitzman, Jackson Mucciolo, Lorelai Mucciolo, Gianna Oppedisano, Priscilla Russo, Dylan O’Leary, Logan O’Leary, Zach Podair, Alia Romanelli, Jonathan Setzer, Savannah Shaw, Juliana Spataro, Ari Spiegel, and Justin Walsh Weiner.

Bathrooms are available on the premises and souveniers, including flower sunglasses, flower hair clips, leis and paper fans,  are available for purchase.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts presents “Moana Jr.” at the Smithtown Historical Society, 239 East Main St., Smithtown through Aug. 15. Up to 75 tickets are sold for each performance with ticket holders safely distanced in their groups away from others and masks are required. All seats are $18. To order, visit www.smithtownpac.org.

All photos by Courtney Braun