Bringing Madagascar animation to life a mammoth task

Madagascar Live! Picture: Complimentary
Madagascar Live! Picture: Complimentary
Share this article
Have your say

HIT film franchise Madagascar has followed the Lion King on to the stage, but the frenetic globetrotting of the animals posed interesting problems for both the set designers and the cast, writes Kelly Apter

Standing outside an industrial estate, on a cold rainy morning in Utrecht in the Netherlands, theatrical magic feels like the last thing on the agenda. Yet it’s here, a short trip from Amsterdam, where a journey from big screen to big stage is taking place.

One of the biggest success stories to come out of the DreamWorks stable, Madagascar has won a legion of fans, and spawned two sequels, since it arrived in cinemas in 2005. The tale of a group of Central Park Zoo animals, who escape to the New York subway and inadvertently end up on the eponymous African island, Madagascar is known for its witty characters, warm friendships and exciting locations.

In an animated film, anything is possible. Creating an underground railway, cargo ship, tropical forests and beautiful beaches on stage, is quite a different proposition. But that’s exactly what’s happening inside this vast warehouse, the home of Stage Entertainment Touring Productions.

A week before the cast and crew are due to head out for a nine city tour across the UK, local children have been invited in to watch a dress rehearsal. It’s a risky move – the cast speaks no Dutch, the children barely any English. Yet it holds their attention throughout.

In particular a young man fresh out of college, and leaving behind his home in the US for the first time, has them captivated. Playing the egomaniacal lemur leader, King Julien XIII, Bradley Frenette has a gift of a role, and is milking it for all its worth.

“As an actor in a show like this, you have to enter another reality,” says the 22-year-old with a smile. “This is so far away from real life, that you just have to embrace it and go into it 100 per cent.” Never more so than during the I Like to Move It sequence, one of the most memorable moments from the film – and the undisputed highlight of the stage show.

“I watched the movie before my audition, and that was my favourite part of it,” says Frenette. “And I think for most kids, that’s their favourite part, too. It’s the most recognisable part of Madagascar, so they come to the stage show expecting to see a bunch of lemurs moving it.”

And move it they do. With three shows a day scheduled for the UK tour, and just 12 actors 
taking on 25 roles, the young cast has its work cut out. Especially given the big-hoofed, heavy-headed costumes they’re all wearing.

“It takes a lot of getting used to,” says Frenette. “My professor at college told me that when you’re playing a part that’s very high energy, or wearing a crazy costume, you have to rehearse on the treadmill. If you can’t sing an entire song running on a treadmill, you won’t get through it on stage in costume. And this is one of those shows. You have to build up the stamina, so I run, go to the gym, eat well – and you can’t go out and party every night.”

On screen, King Julien’s rendition of the dance/reggae track, I Like to Move It is the only number. Madagascar Live!, on the other hand, has a whole lot more musicality on offer. Songs such as Steak, in which Alex the Lion’s penchant for flesh causes him to hallucinate, and the Motown-inspired Food Chain both show off the performers’ strong vocals.

Finding innovative ways to turn an animated tale into a stage musical was one of the most crucial aspects of the show’s creation.

“We took enormous care in building this production,” says director, Gip Hoppe. “When do the characters sing? Why do they sing? Those were tough decisions to make, and a lot of thought went into it. But I really think we’ve done it – it’s now a family Broadway musical.”

Having worked on several large-scale children’s shows, including Dora the Explorer Live, as well as numerous Broadway productions, Hoppe had the perfect CV for the job. Taking on such a successful product, with a brand like DreamWorks attached, comes with a level of responsibility, however.

“They’re not going to let just anything go out there with their name on it,” agrees Hoppe. “But the reason they’re such a good company, is they really respect the creative process. They gave us a great atmosphere to work in and make the show, and were incredibly open to suggestions. But then they would also come in with really good observations as we went along.”

Although the plotline, characters and many of the lines from the first film are all there in the show, the production has become something new in its own right. Fast editing is a key aspect of most animated films, and Madagascar is no exception. Recreating that in the live arena is an impossibility, but as Hoppe says, “we’re not just photocopying the film onto the stage, we’ve made a traditional musical out of really great material.”

With Tony Award-winning set and costume designers on board, the company has looked for alternative ways to transport an audience to the film’s various landmarks. A split stage becomes the busy streets of Manhattan above and the underground system below. While an entertaining routine with portholes depicts the ship taking the animals to their new home.

“There’s a lot in there,” says Hoppe. “You have to go around the world with this show, and we did it, we got it all up there. The first act takes place in New York so there’s the grey of the buildings and the sounds of urban life – and then when we arrive on this exotic island, there’s an explosion of colour, beaches and the lushness of Madagascar.”

• Madagascar Live!, Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, 8-10 March.