The Marriott Theatre obviously takes its children’s shows seriously. The theater not only entertains its youthful viewers now but it’s building it audiences for the future. Youngsters who leave the theater after attending the delightful “Madagascar” are being shaped to come back in the seasons ahead as adult patrons. Maybe that’s why the theater labels its shows Marriott Theatre for Young Audiences, not the Marriott Theatre Children’s Theater.
The new production is an adaptation of “Madagascar,” an animated movie that opened in 2005 and became popular enough to establish a mini franchise. The show follows the well worn path of children’s stage shows, featuring talking animals singing and dancing their way through a series of comical adventures. There may be a few tense dramatic moments during the 60-minute intermissionless show but happy endings abound. The story suggests a few easy to understand morals, but nothing the youngsters cannot digest easily.
The story centers on four animals living as exhibits at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. We have Alex the lion (Liam Quealy), Marty the zebra (Ron King), Gloria the hippo (Rashada Dawan), and Melman the giraffe (Steven Strafford). Several of the live actors operate additional denizens of the wild in the manner of “The Lion King.”
The story revolves around Marty expressing his unhappiness at being cooped in the zoo. He wants freedom, which eventually takes the animals far from Central Park, where they face some mild dangers and (spoiler alert) decide at the end that life in the zoo wasn’t so bad and there is no place like home, especially when surrounded by sympathetic friends. Not a bad idea to pass along to the youthful spectators.
The highest compliment I can pay to the show is that it does not patronize its spectators. Certainly the action is frothy (the viewers are not yet ready for “Angels in America” or “Rent”) but there is enough substance in the narrative to engage the minds of the attending lads and lasses. The show does not fob the audience off on pratfalls and silliness.
The artistic achievement elevation of the production is made possible by the all-out effort of the 11-member ensemble. Marriott has cast the show with quality professionals, including several who are established performers on area musical stages. These actors don’t perform like they are slumming, content with feeding the spectators shtick and low comedy. Everyone on the stage has talent and nobody coasts. The production numbers are exhilarating enough to earn applause from the many parents and grandparents accompanying the core audience.
The contributions by Quealy, King, Dawan, and Strafford have been noted. All their colleagues deserve to be named to complete the honor roll—Emily Agy, Landree Fleming, Alejandro Fonseca, Yando Lopez, Garrett Lutz, Laura Savage, and Allison Pill. When this kind of show employs a genuine star like Pill for comparatively minor rolls, you know the theater is serious about quality control.
The production features first rate production values, especially Jesus Perez’s colorful, clever anthropomorphic costumes. Rachel Rauschner’s basic set evokes a nice sense of place, whether it’s Central Park or deepest Africa. The design kudos extend to Jesse Klug’s lighting and Robert E. Gilmartin’s sound plan, both artists among the top in their profession in Chicagoland theater.
The director is Johanna McKenzie Miller, another familiar and honored name in area theater, who orchestrates the high energy staging in creative union with choreographer Ericka Mac. The music directed by Sam Groisser is as fulsome and professional as one would expect in an evening performance at Marriott.
Normally children in an audience can be cause for concern among adults. The Marriott audience included a number of very young viewers with the average in the 10 year old age group. But the large opening morning performance crowd was responsive, involved, and well behaved, a cumulative role model who could teach Chicagoland adult opening night audiences much about decorum and courtesy. The youngsters sat for the uninterrupted hour of singing and dancing and storytelling without fidgeting or fuss (I give the few very young attendees a pass). The youthful viewers conducted themselves like admirable seed corn for the next generation of theatergoers.