Ahead of their New Zealand tour Karl Puschmann went behind the scenes at Disney on Ice in Melbourne.
Last week I went on an adventure with a princess. My 4-year-old daughter Poppy and I travelled to Melbourne for the night to see Disney on Ice celebrates Mickey and Friends, the new show from the touring ice skating troupe.
Poppy was dressed as Elsa, the princess from Frozen, in a flowing ice-blue dress and a sparkly crown on her little head. I was dressed in my usual duds but wearing the hefty responsibly of travelling overseas with a young child. A big task, as any parent will tell you.
We'd made our way to Melbourne's equivalent of Spark Arena and were being led through a labyrinth of identical-looking corridors underneath the stadium. After a couple of wrong turns, we eventually walked into a room backstage where I was greeted warmly by Phoebe Flynn, Disney On Ice's performance director, and Poppy was greeted with a big bag of treasure, aka Disney on Ice merchandise.
While she sat on a couch on the other side of the room excitedly rifling through her bag of goodies, Flynn told me all about the new show. There was a lot to discuss.
Each year Disney on Ice changes things up to ensure their show stays fresh. For us Kiwis, this year's show is particularly exciting and hugely relevant because for the first time ever they'll be performing an almost 25-minute-long segment based on the Pacific princess herself, Moana. But not only that, at certain shows they'll perform it in te reo Māori.
"We're very excited to bring it to you guys because we know audiences will really appreciate that," Flynn beams. "It's a really cool thing for our skaters as well because it gives them a real feeling about performing Moana."
This isn't as simple as just playing a different music file for that segment, as Flynn explains. There were technical challenges, sure, but more than that they wanted to be culturally responsible.
So while the skaters are not singing ("Our skaters create the vocal experience," Flynn says) they all learned some te reo to prepare.
"It was fun and challenging. A mix of the two. It's something we started practising a while ago and we're going to keep practising until we get to New Zealand so we can really bring that experience to life for all of you," she says. "We definitely take the time and effort to make sure we are representing the culture in the best way possible."
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She's not kidding. Their costume designers worked with animators from the film to make sure the outfits were culturally spot on and retained the look of the movie, and their routine was developed with Moana choreographer Tiana Liufau.
"She worked with our head choreographer to go through all of these movements so that we're paying correct homage and being respectful through our performances. We really try to do a good job, so on tour, we use a lot of reference videos from Tiana to teach our skaters the proper movements so that they're creating that atmosphere."
Aside from the cultural challenges, Moana's pacific setting posed a problem.
"Moana's especially difficult because we're on ice," Flynn laughs. "Moana is all about bringing that sunny warmth and beaches and all of that to the ice."
Later, watching Moana gliding around the rink to her show-stopping solo, How Far I'll Go or bickering with Maui throughout the extremely fun You're Welcome, the ice melts away from your vision, transforming from cold ice into warm sandy beaches or deep blue waters thanks to some old-fashioned theatre magic.
"All of these special dazzling effects help us create that environment so we can bring Moana to life as best as possible," Flynn smiles.
She refers to this Moana segment as "a big production number", and that's an apt descriptor. It begins with a host of 15 villagers skating around before Maui sails out on his canoe and Moana has her fire-filled showdown with the movie's villain Te Kā. Seeing flames suddenly erupt out of the ice is quite something.
In fact, the whole Disney on Ice show is quite something. There's so much big colourful action happening, and such brilliant ice skating technique on display, that it's often hard to know where to focus your attention during the big ensemble pieces.
Just a few highlights include Brave's Merida shooting flaming arrows, The Little Mermaid's Ariel and Tangled's Rapunzel both doing eye-popping, truly spectacular high-flying routines, Finding Dory's giant octopus Hank slithering around and Mickey struggling to contain his army of mischievous magic brooms.
Being old school I was happy to see Goofy fooling around and Poppy was near beside herself when Elsa, Anna and Olaf all appeared for the big special effects-laden finale; a song-filled blat through fan favourite Frozen.
"We're all about the music here at Disney on Ice," Flynn says. "We tell the story through our musical numbers. Our show is all about inspiring people to create memories with their families and their friends."
Since seeing the show Poppy has refused to take her Elsa dress off. She's also insisted on being called Elsa, although occasionally she'll want to be called Cinderella instead. If she's feeling particularly grandiose it's Princess Elsa Cinderella Butterfly. The only constant being that whichever one I take a punt on is inevitably incorrect, earning me a scowled correction for my troubles.
But I quickly learned to follow the lead of nearly every adult we encountered as we walked around Melbourne, and then through the airport and, eventually, on to our returning flight and the end of our adventure.
"Hello princess," people would say as Poppy trotted up in her Elsa dress, her matching crown glittering in the light. The third time it happened she whispered very seriously, "They think I'm a real princess."
Then she smiled and whispered, "Don't tell them I'm not."
Who: Phoebe Flynn
What: Disney on Ice celebrates Mickey and Friends
When: Next Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Spark Arena before heading around the country.