REVIEW: Madagascar the Musical (Auckland Live)

by Tim Booth & Sharu Delilkan

[Move it, Groove it]

Dreamworks’ Madagascar is a phenomenon – a franchise that a has netted over US$2.2 billion, entertaining kids and adults worldwide for over 15 years.  It boasts three sequels, computer games and enough merchandise to collapse the Star Wars universe.

As a stage show Madagascar the Musical is clearly something that many families will want to experience, especially during these troubled times. However, spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Madagascar the Movie, you will probably find that Kevin Del Aguila’s book has a number of holes that make the narrative rather difficult to follow. But who are we to complain, when practically all the children attending the show come out totally enraptured.

The ferociously fun frolic follows four of New York’s Central Park Zoo animals aka partners-in-crime as they escape from their home, finding themselves on an unexpected journey to the madcap world of King Julien’s Madagascar.

The all-kiwi cast manages to elevate the show to great heights – thanks to the resident musical director Mark Bradley and choreographer Leisl Eksteen who accentuate the casts’ talents.  Max Humphries’ puppet designs are also visually stunning and look identical to the original movie’s characters.

It is evident from the get-go that we are going to be entertained by Marty, a Kim Kardashian-shaped zebra played by Leroi Kippen who is ever-present and a constant delight. The clever design, acting and puppetry of the giraffe character Melman (Ben Freeth) is wonderful — a woeful hypochondriac and a doleful foil to the madcap adventures of his friends, led by the arrogant alpha lion Alex (Andrew Papas). 

Kristin Paulse (Gloria) stands out with her pitch perfect renditions of the adorably playful and lively hippo’s songs, accompanied by her agile dance moves. Likewise, the ensemble members that play the highly irreverent quartet of penguins — Kowalski (Ezra Williams), Rico (Lucy Sutcliffe), Private (Geena Hutton) and Skipper (Cole Johnston) — give equally memorable performances with their four-part harmonies and perfectly animated puppetry, thanks to Paul Lewis’ astute puppet direction. The puppets underpin the narrative – their characters’ tone and humour are fantastically and delightfully peppered throughout.  However, for those seated at the back of the venue, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the subtleties of each penguin’s character due to the similar dress tones of the puppeteers behind.

King of the Lemurs of Madagascar, King Julien (Jonathan Martin), gets the night’s biggest laughs.  His flamboyant delivery induces many laugh-out-loud moments – even the fart jokes land effortlessly, appealing to kids and adults alike.

Given the on-going commentary about prioritising NZ artists over foreign artists, the sparse opening night audience must have been somewhat disheartening for our pre-dominantly Kiwi cast and crew.

Despite a constellation of beautiful looking set pieces on stage, the resultant effect is presented through a very restricted, small stage window.  This glaringly noticeable and strange production choice tends to box in the action.  It’s a shame that the expansive Kiri Te Kanawa stage isn’t fully utilised to its potential.  The insufficient room seems to inhibit the casts’ movement on stage.

Madagascar the Musical is just as funny and relevant today as when the original movie was released. The universal themes like wanting to break away from routine and the daily grind are still vital today. In addition, the mixture of cheeky humour and loveable characters targeting all ages promises an uplifting night out for the whānau. 

Madagascar the Musical plays Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre – Aotea Centre, 8-18 July, 2021. 

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