Madagascar the Musical

Book by Kevin Del Aguila; music and lyrics by George Noriega and Joel Someillan
Selladoor Family and Hartshorn – Hook Productions
Sunderland Empire
to

First of all, Madagascar the Musical passes the toilet test. I only saw one child in the Dress Circle being taken to the toilet in the first half and none in the second.

(The toilet test, by the way, says that the less the children enjoy the show, the more visits there are to the toilet—the smaller the number of visits, the greater the enjoyment.)

But then, one would expect that: the original 2005 movie is the fourth largest grossing animated film in cinema history and sparked two follow-ups.

So we know the show’s target audience love the movie, how does it work on stage?

I haven’t seen the movie, so the only way I can judge Madagascar is as a stage show. I am also a great fan of children’s theatre—I certainly review more in a year than any other North East reviewer—and I know that my review must focus on the reactions of the children in the audience rather than my own. I also believe, however, that good children’s theatre is just good theatre, full stop.

Anyway, to the show! The two little boys along the row from me, both under ten, sat back and watched with interest during the first half but in the second were leaning forward watching intently, which suggests to me that, for them, this was a show of two halves.

And that accords with my own reaction. The first act introduces us to our heroes—Alex the lion (Matt Terry), Marty the zebra (Antoine Murray-Straughan), Melman the giraffe (Jamie Lee-Morgan) who is part puppet with the neck and head being operated by Lee-Morgan, and Gloria the hippo (Timmika Ramsay)—in their home in Central Park Zoo, New York, on Marty’s birthday. The birthday present Marty really wants is to live in the wild—not that he knows what the wild actually is or what living there would entail!

We also meet four (puppet) penguins who too are anxious to escape to their ancestral home, Antarctica. They do get away, and Marty and his friends follow in their footsteps. They go off into New York City and we see them at Grand Central Station but they are shot with tranquiliser darts and end up, not back at the zoo, but in crates on a ship which is taken over by the penguins.

If you don’t know the original film, you will experience, as I did, some confusion at this and about what happens next. It appears, though, that the children in the audience did know what was going on! However even they were somewhat confused when the first act stuttered to an end. You could sense a touch of bewilderment as the house lights came up, and the applause was a little desultory because of the unexpectedness of the ending.

In act II, we are in Madagascar and suddenly the show really takes off. We meet a new character, King Julien of the Lemurs (resident director Jo Parsons), who is not only the funniest and most engaging character but also has the “ear worm” song of the show, “I Like to Move It, Move It”. The children’s body language changes; they are sitting up and leaning forward and there’s an air of excitement which was missing earlier.

And the plot now takes a darker turn. Alex loves a good steak; he even sings a song about it, with dance accompaniment full of echoes of The Ziegfeld Follies. Then, when he becomes aware that, unlike in the zoo, no one is going to bring him any meat, his instincts begin to take over and he starts looking at his friend Marty in a very different way!

The show romps to a satisfying conclusion (it’s only 40 minutes per act, with a 20-minute interval) with an enthusiastic curtain call, and the kids left the theatre buzzing.

And that’s not surprising. The performances are great and the puppets—very much in the Avenue Q style—are really appealing. The puppeteers, who work their socks off, manage to imbue real individuality and character into their puppets, even the four penguins which seem, except for size, absolutely identical. The music is written to appeal to the target audience, the choreography the same and the cartoon-like set is bright and colourful.

And the almost compulsory poo mention? It came right at the beginning when a monkey pokes his head out of a crate and warns us to switch off all mobile phones and not make any recordings or he’ll fling poo at us.

It’s the sixth week of the summer holidays and, for those parents from Sunderland and the surrounding area who are reaching the end of their tether and are praying for next week to come, this arrival of this show at the Empire has clearly been a huge boon!

Peter Lathan