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They Like to Move It, Move It!

Highly Recommended!

Following a typical day of crowd-pleasing performances at the Central Park Zoo, Marty the zebra is surprised by a party thrown in his honor by his animal friends. Alex the lion, Gloria the hippo and Melman the hypochondriac giraffe all help Marty celebrate his tenth birthday with a cake and some unusual gifts. But, after Marty blows out the candles, he confesses to his buddies that his secret birthday wish is to escape the confines of the zoo and return to The Wild.

Marty’s not the only animal with escape on his mind. The zoo’s passel of penguins, Private, Rico and Kowalski, have formed themselves into a well-disciplined army, led by their fearless leader, Skipper. Together they’ve planned a mass exodus from New York City to Antarctica. Marty decides to join them, going at least as far as The Wild, but his entire circle of friends, along with Mason the chimpanzee, end up accompanying the penguins on an ocean liner that soon runs amuck.

The shipwrecked animals find themselves in the jungles of Madagascar, an island ruled by Julian, King of the lemurs. His subjects, a gaggle of tiny, furry, “full-figured raccoons” are being preyed upon by the fossa, a pack of bloodthirsty carnivores. The lemurs so appreciate the intruders’ assistance in rescuing them from their enemies, that they welcome the zoo animals into their community. But eventually hunger possesses the lion and, finding it impossible not to see his best friend as a filling meal, Alex convinces Marty that his decision to run away was a big mistake.

The penguins, who’ve successfully commandeered the ocean liner once again, finally make it to Antarctica, only to discover that it wasn’t what they expected. The birds decide it would be best to return to the zoo, but decide to stop by Madagascar along the way to pick up their old friends. When they arrive they discover Alex wasting away and ready to devour everyone on the island. However, just as the fossa begin threatening the little lemurs again, Alex rises to the occasion and saves the day. He’s rewarded with sushi; and, since Alex is actually a big cat, he finds that he likes the fishy treat better than steak. All the animals rejoice and celebrate with wild abandon, dancing and singing, because “They like to move it, move it!”

This new, 60-minute stage musical is based upon the popular 2005 Dreamworks film. Adapting a computer-animated cartoon for the theatre is a demanding task. However, the Marriott is fortunate to have director and choreographer Matt Raftery, assisted by musical director Ryan T. Nelson, to meet the challenge. And they do so with flair. Working with a stellar cast of Chicago’s finest, A-list triple-threat talents, and accompanied by Patti Garwood and her musical masters, this production is top-notch. Although aimed at younger audiences, Raftery’s production elicits thunderous applause and gales of laughter from every adult theatergoer, as well.

There are no second-rate performers in this show. Each actor/singer/dancer is a star. The Marriott casts only the finest talent from the Chicago professional acting pool for its Theatre for Young Audiences. James Earl Jones II, for example, is hilarious, touching and demonstrates a bit of bravado, as Marty the zebra. Always wondering if he’s black with white stripes or white with black stripes, Jones longs for what he can’t have until, like Dorothy Gale, he finds there’s no place like home. He also comes to appreciate what it means to have good friends on his side. Mr. Jones’ mellow vocals and gravity-defying dance moves make his Marty a striped treat.

Trading in his “Mamma Mia!” beach jams for a pair of fur-trimmed bellbottoms and a Mick Jagger mane, Russell Mernagh transforms from Sky, a hunky teen heartthrob, to become Alex, the King of the Jungle, or at least the Tzar of the Zoo. Mr. Mernagh proves that he’s not only got the visage and the voice, but all the right moves, as he sings and dances his way through this tale of friendship. As Alex continually struggles to combat his natural predatory instincts in The Wild, he always remains a faithful companion.

Rashada Dawan, a standout in the National Tour of “The Lion King,” as well as the star of several Chicago Black Ensemble Theater revues, is absolutely divine as chipper Gloria the hippo. Visually funny in her giant bouffant wig and fat suit, Ms. Dawan is a dream girl in every song and dance she performs. Stephen Schellhardt, a longtime favorite at the Marriott, has performed, choreographed or served as a casting director all over Chicago. Here he uses his dry wit and self-deprecating humor to make Melman, the neurotic giraffe, a beloved crowd-pleaser.

Using puppets to portray the penguin brigade, as well as the lemurs and the villainous fossa pack, Laura Savage, Elena Romanowski, Liam Quealy and, especially, Leah Morrow are sensational. Together they generate most of the high-octane energy that keeps this show in constant motion. Individually, each character has his own distinct personality, with Ms. Morrow leading the pack as a no-nonsense master-and-commander of this team of tuxedoed troopers.

The always excellent and entertaining Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, recently seen as Sebastian the Crab in the Paramount’s “The Little Mermaid,” is once again miraculous in this production. He shines like the sun, playing so many roles, the most brilliant being the vainglorious lemur leader, King Julian. Samantha Pauly, whose radiance lights up the stage in every role she undertakes, is very funny as several different characters, including a feisty, elderly New Yorker and the wryly humorous Maurice, King Julian’s royal advisor. And, last but not least, the mega-talented Jed Feder brings his percussive talents to Mason, the zoo animals’ drumming, singing and dancing chimpanzee cohort. Seldom ever offstage, Mr. Feder is both lovable and a hit in this role.

Chock full of broad comedy, toe-tapping pop/rock hit songs and exciting choreography, this may be a musical for young audiences, but theatergoers of all ages will go wild for it. Costumed in cleverly colorful and stylish anthropomorphic costumes, and set to the beat of an infectious musical score, this play delivers a sound message about the importance of friendship, while it fills the stage with humor and joyful wordplay. By the end of the show, in a contagious finale that brings the entire audience to its feet, everyone joins in with the cast as they “Move it, move it.”