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Marriott’s madcapped ‘Madagascar’ makes for fantastic family fun

The real takeaway from Madagascar–A Musical Adventure, appearing now at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre, is truly bigger and more complimentary than this show itself.

And that’s saying something, because this show is a legitimate joy for all ages.

But then it hits: Aren’t they all?

Because the Matt Raftery-choreographed and directed Madagascar is simply the latest splendid production for young audiences deserving so much more acclaim than typically given to 10 am curtain times.

Patrons need to know these Marriott young audiences’ productions are not only among the best local introductions to musical theatre for children (they are). But each of them, for many years now, stands out as an excellent musical in its own right.

Indeed, Raftery’s 2012-directed kids’ version of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat provided a wonderfully fresh, maybe even Jeff-worthy take on the well-known Biblical piece that’s been staged in prime time with an uninspired, snoozeable sameness for decades. (That’s written by someone who truly loves Joseph and is hoping for a Rafteryesque, avant-garde take at Drury Lane later this year.)

So why are Marriott’s young audiences productions so good and what makes this Madagascar superb? Easy. The company doesn’t cheap out on their kids’ shows.

That starts with live music and a creative team made up of professionals like Raftery and Co-Director/Costume Designer Jesus Perez. Madagascar audiences are sure to be dazzled by Perez’s unexpectedly intricate, powerfully colorful costumes and innovative puppetry.

“Madagascar is already an established idea,” Perez said, discussing this Chicagoland premiere of the musical. “But since this is a live production and not a movie, it has opened up a world of creativity for us. This is the perfect vehicle for me as a designer to bring this fantastical world to life.”

For those not already in the know, this Madagascar is a musical twist based on the animated film from DreamWorks. Alex the Lion is the main attraction at New York’s Central Park Zoo where he and his best friends – Marty the cool Zebra, Melman the hypochondriac Giraffe and Gloria the sassy Hippo – have spent their whole lives in captivity before an admiring public and with regular meals provided.

Discontent and dreaming of life in the wild, Marty makes his escape with the help of some prodigious penguins and is followed by his concerned friends. One thing leads to another, the directions get all fouled up and the lot of them wind up in the crazy, madcap world of King Julien’s Madagascar to question and ultimately understand the things that truly matter.

With an upbeat song list including more than 15 songs performed over the hour-long show, highlights include: “It’s Showtime;” “Wild and Free;” “Best Friends;” “Relax, Be Cool, Chill Out;” “Welcome to Me;” “I Like to Move It;” and “Living in Paradise.”

Complementing their backstage bosses, the Madagascar cast is made up of 11 top-notch triple threats, any one of whom might be starring in a prime time Chicagoland musical (and most, if not all of them have). While James Earl Jones II (excellent in every facet) as Marty the Zebra, Russell Mernagh (utterly endearing) as “Alex the Lion,” Rashada Dawan (huge voice) as “Gloria the Hippo” and Stephen Schellhardt (hilariously vulnerable) as “Melman the Giraffe” remain in their characters for the entire show, the others in this stellar ensemble are quick-change artists all, earning extensive stage time in numerous guises. They are Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Leah Morrow, Liam Quealy, Laura Savage, Elena Romanowski, Samantha Pauly and Jed Feder. To boot, they are fabulous singers and terrific dancers, executing Raftery’s high energy choreography to perfection.

As with all Marriott young audiences productions, an insider’s look into the show is available via a question and answer session with the cast following all performances. So with its upbeat score making even the most curmudgeonly adults feeling the itch to get up and “Move It, Move It!” this production is highly recommended for kids of all ages.