EAU CLAIRE — Just as the story of “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” highlights the importance of friendships, the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre production of the play finds actors reveling in the camaraderie they’ve experienced less than usual in the past year.
“Nearly all of the cast has done shows in the past together,” said Dustin Haugle, portraying King Julien, ruler of the lemurs. “So that message of friendship not only carries on the show level but also on the performer level — that some of the best friendships that are already existing in the cast have been created at the Children’s Theatre. And so it’s fun to experience a show like this together and continue to grow with your peers and experience new things, especially in what has been a challenging year where you might not have had all of the social time and those friendships in person.”
Speaking directly to what had been implied, Haugle added, “Now, as we jump out of the COVID age into something new and brighter, these friendships are even more important as we continue to form them through this period.”
“Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” will run Friday, June 11, through Sunday, June 13, at The Lismore Hotel’s Wilson Ballroom. The production is directed by Wayne Marek.
Haugle and three other cast members met recently (in costume for a photo) to talk about the show: Ethen Loasching as Alex the lion; Morgan Smith as Gloria the hippo; and, towering over those gathered near the Children’s Theatre stage, Kyle Richardson as Melman the giraffe. (A fifth main character, Marty the zebra, is played in this production by James Kircher.)
Screen to stage
“Madagascar” should strike a familiar chord with many viewers, as it is based on the popular 2005 DreamWorks animated film that spawned multiple sequels and TV shows.
It focuses on Alex, Gloria, Melman and Marty, pampered animals at New York’s Central Park Zoo, who end up learning what life is like in a real jungle — after they escape their comfy confines — where they meet King Julien.
The film featured the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett, among others.
As Haugle observed, the film’s popularity should serve as a strong selling point for theatergoers seeking a fresh take on the story.
“What I like most about the show is obviously most kids have seen the movie,” he said. “And so you automatically recognize the characters you know from the relationships, and that translates right onto the stage and pulls it right from an experience they already know but shines it in a new light. There’s nothing like live theater.”
It’s enjoyable for the actors as well as the audience, Haugle offered.
“It’s fun to portray those characters, be larger than life for kids, and to see that magic light up for them and have their parents or grown-ups experience seeing that with them,” he said.
They’ve got personality
The actors went on to describe their characters’ more colorful personality traits. Richardson, for instance, described Melman as a “hypochondriac.”
“He consistently equates all of this emotional and physical states to the most outrageous diseases that he can possibly have,” he said. “So that makes him cautious. He’s a very cautious giraffe, not prone to courage.”
On the other side of the personality spectrum, “I would definitely say Gloria is definitely a sassy hippo,” Smith said. “She knows what she wants, but yet she will also be there for her friends whenever.”
Smith’s appreciation for Gloria began well before she auditioned for the show.
“I would definitely say I loved watching the movie when I was a kid, and I always actually loved Gloria the hippo,” she said. “She was my favorite character, and I’d always be like, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s the coolest thing ever!’ So being able to play her has been a lot of fun for sure.”
Alex is used to having the spotlight, as the actor portraying him sees it.
“Alex the lion is the main attraction at the Central Park Zoo,” Loasching said. “And he knows his worth, he knows what he is and he’s very chill about that, but he’s also very full of himself. But he’s really kind to his friends. He loves all of them, but he doesn’t change. So when they do end up going to Madagascar, he kind of goes a little crazy in the head, thinking, ‘Oh, I want meat and steak and stuff,’ when they don’t serve that.”
King Julien shows up later in the show and makes his presence felt, Haugle explained.
“It’s fun to introduce a new, large-personality character to a large cast of other characters that you’ve already experienced,” he said. “King Julien is the king of the lemurs in Madagascar and enjoys dancing more than anything.”
Another quirk, Haugle added, is that this king “has ideas that are maybe not be as grand as he thinks they are.”
Time to dance
While stepping into a fun and familiar story, the audience may be delighted by the cast’s footwork, Richardson suggested.
“I think the most exciting thing for all ages is going to be the dance numbers,” he said, drawing agreement from his cast mates. “They are fast paced, they are big, awesome dance numbers, and it never stops from the beginning of the show to the end. Very exciting show to look at.”
Smith added that the choreography helps make the production more than a kids’ show.
“In the movie, everything was crazy, but having it be fun dance numbers … everybody loves a good dance number in a show,” she said. “And so I think that’s something that not only kids will enjoy, but I also think adults will enjoy too.”
Of course, music is part of the action, Loasching noted.
“Adding music to this show itself I feel like enhances the experience and will allow a fresh look at the movie, so kids and adults won’t just be like, ‘Oh, that just happened in the movie; I just watched that,’ “ he said. “But this has new numbers ... and they’ll recognize certain lines from the movie while still having a fresh new look at the stage production.”
Regarding the specific character of the music, Smith explained: “I would definitely say there’s a lot of fun harmonies in the show, and everything is so upbeat. I think there’s only one slow song in the whole show, and it’s just a snippet from a faster song. So all the music is just definitely very fun and upbeat and very enjoyable to listen to and to sing.”
For all the hijinks the characters create, the theme of friendship goes along with the ride.
Throughout “Madagascar,” Richardson said, the story emphasizes the quality of “being that friend and how best friends stick together no matter what because you’re best friends. And that’s prevalent through the whole thing.”
That message is personified in the relationship of Marty the zebra and Alex.
“Their friendship really takes center stage as the most important message in the show as we get to the end and going back to New York and how it’s OK to give up on little dreams for your friendships, which are more important,” Richardson said.
While the Children’s Theatre’s mission has always been about providing theater experiences for all ages, “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” represents one of the ways they reach that goal, Haugle pointed out.
“What’s so nice about this show … Kyle, myself and a couple other adults are the only true adults in the cast. This is truly a Children’s Theatre show for youths by youths. Obviously, all families and adults will enjoy it as well, but as an adult who’s done lots of theater, it’s so nice to be in the midst of a crowd of young people and see them grow and experience and learn the lessons and skills of the theater as I learned and grew in my youth as well.”
The leadership role brings its own joys, Haugle added.
“It’s really rewarding for us and why as adults we keep coming back and love to see the younger generation stepping into those roles and continuing to develop into strong actors and performers,” he said.
That is to say, it’s something friends do for each other.