You have to pass a fitness test to fully enjoy “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” at Children’s Theatre. Even before the show begins, DJ Scratch incites the crowd to leap to its feet and lays down commands: “You jam out! You groove! You pump it up! And … you move it! You move it!” Anyone firmly planted in a seat will feel left behind.
If the bizarre voice of lemur King Julien XIII isn’t ringing in your ears, you’re in the wrong place – and you don’t remember “Madagascar,” the 2005 Dreamworks film overlooked by the Oscars and Golden Globes but loved by children. (The Kids Choice Awards named it top animated film.)
Critics usually use the phrase “provides 70 minutes of non-stop action” as a euphemistic way to describe pea-brained action movies that have nothing else to offer. This stage version never stays still: People, set pieces or props are always in motion, even during a blackout where we see only pairs of huge blinking eyes. Yet writer Kevin Del Aguila makes sure young audiences absorb truths about interdependence and friendship.
The story took 10 minutes longer onscreen, not counting credits, so the play can be almost completely faithful to the screenplay. Though it has to forego complex sequences – we take the shipwreck for granted – nothing essential has been lost, and director Michelle Long shrewdly enlarges her space by bringing action to boxes above the stage and into the audience.
She begins in Central Park Zoo, where Marty the zebra (endearing Deon Releford-Lee) dreams of freedom. Alex the lion (ebullient Traven Harrington) doesn’t want to leave a place where he’s adored. But when his best friend bolts, Alex follows him with hypochondriac giraffe Melman (Caleb Sigmon, ambling delightfully on stilts) and plucky hippo Gloria (Dominique Atwater, who makes this woefully underused character interesting by force of personality).
The zoo transfers the unreliable beasts to Kenya, but penguins (led in fine drill-instructor fashion by Allison Snow-Rhinehardt) commandeer the ship and dump them in Madagascar. There they meet egomaniacal Julien (Rahsheem Shabazz, enjoyable in self-worship) and face three dilemmas.
The lemurs have to be saved from the unseen fossa, a natural predator. Alex has to be saved from starvation, which threatens his sanity. And Marty has to be saved from carnivorous Alex, who now sees him not as an empathizer but an appetizer. The abrupt ending reconciles all difficulties (you knew that) without setting up an inferior sequel, as the movie did.
All of the film’s songs came from other sources. George Noriega (who won a Grammy for producing Gloria Estefan’s “Alma Caribeña”) and songwriting partner Joel Someillan retained only the butt-shaking anthem “I Like to Move It,” adding witty numbers that mostly make kids bounce or adults smile. (In my favorite, hunger-mad Alex dreams of prime cuts of beef, which sing sweetly to him.)
Tucked inside all this fun come the morals, perhaps expressed more clearly here than in the film: Selfishness gets you into trouble. The community matters more than the individual. Sometimes you have to suppress desires, even overpowering ones, to accommodate other people’s needs. Once again, I wished members of every elected office in America were compelled to attend at least one children’s theater show every season.
‘Madagascar: A Musical Adventure’
WHEN: Through May 6 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday. Sensory-friendly performance: 11 a.m. April 21. ASL-interpreted show: 3 p.m. May 5.
WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
RUNNING TIME: 70 minutes without intermission.
DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.