Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Hiawatha - WAAPA (17 March 2015)

In many ways it is fitting that the program notes only list the names of the 19 members of the second year musical theatre class in this their first public outing as WAAPA students. It is a true ensemble piece with everyone given an opportunity to shine. It makes it a little difficult, however, to identify who is who with no roles assigned. But there’s plenty of time over the next two years to put faces to names and become familiar with this next wave of talented performers. I do know some and can make a guess at others but I apologise in advance for any incorrect attributions and the unavoidable omissions in what follows. 

This is also the first time I’ve seen a show at the amphitheatre and it’s a really nice venue that allowed for the creation of mood in the open air space with lovely use of lighting, sound and smoke effects. Unfortunately it also meant that shows had to be cancelled early in the run due to the inclement weather. While it threatened to rain late in proceedings it turned out to be a really great night for what was an evocative treatment of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow epic poem. Most impressively it allowed the musical theatre students to showcase several facets of their craft with singing, though present, taking a back seat. The focus was more on acting, vocal projection, movement and dance with the at times acrobatic ensemble work showing off the athletic prowess of the cast.

The poem is presented in its chapters with a rotating roster of female narrators after an opening Introduction featuring Jason Arrow. While the narrator addresses the audience, the featured actors in the scene with accompaniment from the ensemble give a stylised representation of events. I particularly liked how certain battles were handled where the use of magic is implied and the depiction of various animals including the bear that Mudjekeewis (Joshua Firman) kills. Hiawatha himself is played by a rotating roster of actors with only characters like Mudjekeewis, Nokomis (Melissa Russo) and Minnehaha (Christina Odam) undertaken by the same actor during the entirety of the piece.

Music is provided by one or two cast members just off stage, again this task being rotated through different performers. It was predominantly drum and percussion heavy with some additional sound effects added for eeriness or even slight comic effect. These rotations between narrators, Hiawatha, and music duties were seamless. I also liked that the cast were often dispersed at the rear of the audience and during The Hunting of Pau-Puk-Keewis their animal sounds from behind and facing away from us echoed off the surrounding buildings to great effect.

The back of the set had a large drape covered with constellations and the moon (or sun depending on lighting cues) made from feathers. The stage floor had a cloth covered in different symbols which I initially took to mean the different Indian nations that Hiawatha brings together though could have signified geographic locations. The cast were uniformly costumed (with some temporary exceptions for certain minor characters) again highlighting the ensemble nature of the work.

Mood and tone were very important to the piece and two moments that highlighted this were Minnehaha’s death during the famine that was particularly well handled and the Ghosts (Katherine Schmidli and Rebecca Cullinan) that visit Nokomis, Minnehaha and warn Hiawatha in the preceding chapter. And even though singing wasn’t featured there was enough here to get excited for the group’s subsequent foray into musicals.

This was a strong introduction to the second years as it showed so many different aspects of their undoubted ability and potential, but also worked as a standalone piece of theatre that did justice to the great American poem. A nice touch that I really enjoyed was that the cast greeted and chatted to the audience before the show which gave everything an informal, relaxed air.

Directed by Crispin Taylor with Choreography by Claudia Alessi, Hiawatha stars Jason Arrow, Hayden Baum, Embla Bishop, Hannah Burridge, Stefanie Caccamo, Rebecca Cullinan, Andre Drysdale, Marissa Economo, Joshua Firman, Mikey Halcrow, Matthew Manahan, Christina Odam, Jens Radda, Ashley Roussety, Melissa Russo, Katherine Schmidli, Nathan Stark, Stephanie Wall and Samuel Welsh with only two more shows on 18-19 March.

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