Madagascar:The Musical had its UK premiere only a few weeks' ago in London and had its first night in Manchester at the Palace Theatre last night to an almost full house. There was much anticipation for this show in the audience, which was largely made up of children, and they were not disappointed. The two halves moved along quickly and it was hard not to smile for the duration of the show.
There is always some difficulty in trying to represent cartoon characters on stage through actors and in Madagascar, the main characters were costumed convincingly and were able to show the quirkiness and cuddliness of each character through movement, facial expressions and the costumes themselves. The lead role of Alex The Lion was warmly played by X Factor winner Matt Terry and this was no weak choice of casting; he is a skilful dancer and his character had instant charm. He lent his voice well to the character, which showed off his vocal skill not only in range but also in timbral variety. Marty The Zebra, played by Antoine Murray-Straughan was the star of the show for me. He was immediately lovable and obviously a very talented dancer and singer. Here he was able to combine a committed and convincing facial expression to his character, which brought every movement, word, and note to life. Timmika Ramsay and Jamie Lee-Morgan who played the parts of Gloria The Hippo and Melman The Giraffe respectively were also really warm and three-dimensional. There were potentially restrictions for these characters due to the oversized costumes but the actors were clearly comfortable in their own skins, so to speak, and so hip-hop dancing hippos and giraffes were as elegant and graceful as could be expected and certainly comical and entertaining. King Julien, played by Jo Parsons, appears in the second act and although it is a truly comic role, it was played with authority and immediate command of the audience. Parsons had easily the most and loudest laughs of the evening and deservedly so.
The secondary characters were puppets with the puppet handler clearly visible and costumed but I was unsure about the lack of facial expression among the puppeteers here. The actors tended to stare at the back of the head of their puppet as they spoke, manipulating the face of the puppet. In theory this makes you concentrate on the puppet itself but the near dead pan faces of the puppeteers were unsettling. In other puppet shows I have seen, the puppet and the puppeteer are both animated facially with success. This would have made sense here as the puppeteers changed costumes appropriately and were certainly animated in their dance and movement. For the most part, the puppets were easily identifiable but some of the lemur characters did not look like lemurs and while they were meant to resemble the cartoon characters from the original film, they looked bulky and stiff and not cuddly. The same can be said for the costumed evil Foosa cats whose facial features were disappointingly difficult to make out. Nevertheless, the acting from the 10 person cast was full of energy and all the characters were brought to life to the delight of all watching. All cast members were responsible for scene changes and the show moved in a very slick manner.
The musical presented a variety of song types and styles from hip hop to reggae to jazz and dance. Familiar songs from the film were Born Free and I Like To Move It which was used several times to hilarious effect – there really is something about Lemurs doing The Floss that gets hundreds of children on their feet and dancing as only children can! There was no live band or orchestra, apart from the singing, and the vocals in the ensemble numbers were enhanced at times with pre-recorded vocals. I had not seen a musical set to backing tracks before but I must say that it was very effective for this type of show. From a technical point of view the balance of the backing track and live vocals, and the mix between recorded and live vocals was flawless. The solo parts and cameos were all sung live and the cast were really talented in their vocal ability. The duet Best Friends, which is also from the original film, was really beautifully sung by lion Alex and Marty, his Zebra buddy. I preferred their version to the original recording from the soundtrack of the film by a mile.
The story itself was lacking in narrative direction at times, but for a younger audience it was easy to make leaps and use the imagination to carry the story and perhaps it would have been too fussy to try to explain why their zoo transfer was on a boat (where was the destination?) or how some of the animals ended up in Madagascar while others got to the Antarctic. While the lack of narrative detail here did not confuse the young audience it firmly placed this musical in the genre of children’s stage show rather than a musical that can truly enthral and engage adults and children alike. It would not have taken much to elevate this show to beyond an intended audience of primary school aged children. Maybe a future revision will allow this, but as it is, Madagascar The Musical moves the story along very quickly and is immediately gratifying.
I left the Palace Theatre with a grin and I could see many happy children and adults on the way out. Madagascar is a funny, warm and colourful show that will delight any child young or old.
Reviewer - Aaron Loughreyon - 14/8/18