Review: Madagascar The Musical at Sunderland Empire

Review: Madagascar The Musical at Sunderland Empire

Madagascar – Wednesday 22nd November 

Last night, we took to Sunderland Empire Theatre to watch Madagascar- yes a musical based on the EPIC 2005 movie- King Julian in all of his glory. I adore the movie so I was expecting big things from this performance. It was a little quieter than usual in the theatre but it was just so lovely to see so many excited little faces entering the building as this definitely is a show aimed for the younger audience. The running time was probably the shortest of any show I’ve ever seen at each half being just 40 minutes long – perfect for those wriggly bottomed children! 

Here is a little context of the story straight from the tour site;

Alex the lion is the king of the urban jungle, the main attraction at New York’s Central Park Zoo. He and his best friends – Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo – have spent their whole lives in blissful captivity before an admiring public and with regular meals provided for them. Not content to leave well enough alone, Marty lets his curiosity get the better of him and makes his escape – with the help of some prodigious penguins – to explore the world. 

The storyline of the musical mirrors the movie and has all of our beloved characters intertwined making it instantly recognizable and familiar. Due to this comfortable familiarity, I think this would be a really lovely musical for anyone with a learning difficulty too. 

The staging from the off was a visual spectacular and so expertly pieced together. You could see every detail had been thought out so well and it was easy to differentiate where the characters were because of the clever staging. The gigantic stage show sign was bright and colourful and had the audience intrigued from the off. The show opened with crates lining the stage and our first character – the monkey- giving us the pre show talk – turn off your phones, enjoy etc. A really fun start to the show!

The Zoo quickly comes into fruition with the bar gates being expertly moved onto stage by the cast who were dressed as Zookeepers. I do have to applaud the chorus in particular, who had to take the role of many of the different puppet characters on stage as well as being park wardens, grandmas, police officers and animal protection- just to name a few! In our Zoo, we were first introduced to our main four characters – Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo and Melman the Giraffe. The four characters had such wonderful relationships upon the stage and that was clear to see how dynamically they worked together. I have to say the attention to detail on the items on stage was impeccable – I adored the zebra print treadmill, matching towel and bottle. A stroke of genius! 

The shipping containers were a very clever idea and really well used upon the stage particularly during the misdirection of the boat. The lighting during this scene was super effective as well especially when the theatre plummeted into total darkness. This was a clever move as it built suspense for the audience but also gave them time to manoeuvre the tricky staging on and off. The lighting throughout was so impressive and was actually one of the best parts of the show for me. It really emphasised and highlighted the days and the nights and gave real light and shade to the performance. It brightened up the whole theatre. It was clearly expertly mapped out by Lighting Designer, Howard Hudson. 

We got to the end of Act One and although there had been some strong performances from the cast for some reason I just felt a little underwhelmed. I don’t know whether the story just didn’t have enough time to develop with all of the songs in there but I definitely found it to be feeling a little lack-lustre which was slightly disappointing. It could also have been for the fact I was waiting for King Julian who doesn’t make an appearance until Act Two. 

Act Two opens up with the animals making it to the island and we are instantly introduced to the evil jungle cats, the foosa and the most adorable Lemur puppets I have ever seen. I could hear the audience audibly gasping and cooing over how cute they were. I have never seen a show using puppets before and it was so impressive. The cast members handled the puppets expertly and I often forgot I was watching an actual human operate them. They had such wonderful characterisations of all of the puppet animals and each and every one of them had their own unique voice and character. Like I said before, a really impressive feat from the chorus of the show- multi talented indeed and when they all sang together it was just a joy to listen to. Bravo to the Puppet Designer, Max Humphries and Puppet Director, Emma Brunton, they really made such a wholesome addition to the show- even those naughty penguins. Smile and wave boys, smile and wave! 

The jungle staging was just exquisite to look at. Bright, colorful and packed with detail, the show really came to life. Act Two really made up for Act One in my opinion as it was jam packed with brilliant songs, funny jokes and so much more energy. The choreography was simple but so slick throughout the performance and it cannot have been easy to dance in some of those costumes. Well done to Choreographer, Fabian Aloise, for bringing the musical numbers to life. 

Speaking of the costumes, they were so spot on to the characters in the movie. I loved the different use of shapes and puppetry used to express the different characters. My favourite costume had to be Melman the Giraffe which involved a huge puppet head which actor, Joshua Oakes- Rogers expertly moved around and even managed to dance with. Alex the Lion was so buff in his costume and I couldn’t help but love his lion six pack… kind of a weird feeling! Tom Rogers truly did a stellar job perfecting all of the costumes and bringing this to fruition on stage. 

The stage crew were slick throughout however, I did feel for the stage crew when the red curtain didn’t fall correctly during Alex the Lion’s big song. These things happen during performances and I hope they manage to fix this for the remaining shows! 

The main cast themselves were full of wonderful talent. Our main man, Alex the Lion, was played by Joseph Hewlett and he gave such a great characterisation to Alex. Perfectly heroic and arrogant whilst still being wholly loveable. I adored his singing voice and felt like it was the strongest of the group. His solo song, Steak!, could have been pulled right out of Chicago and it gave a real dimension to the songs throughout the musical which were all quite typical of a child geared performance. His best friend, Marty the Zebra was played by Francisco Gomes, provided all the sass. Their duet, Best Friends, was really sweet and I actually adored his rapping skills which he got to show off throughout. I did find his voice a little weaker than the other cast members at times however, I couldn’t tell if there was a difficulty with the mics or whether he was holding back. I definitely felt as though he could have given more punch to some areas of his performance. 

Gloria the Hippo was played by the gorgeous, Jarneia Richard- Noel. Her character was just so bubbly and wonderful and her singing voice was just glorious to be honest. She had a real R&B tone to her voice which just elevated all of the songs she was involved in. You could hear her BOOM BOOM, from miles away! Finally from our fearsome four was Melman the Giraffe. Joshua Oakes- Rogers played Melman so well from his totally accurate voice to his acting on being a hypochondriac – an acting masterclass!

However, the real star of the show came in the form of a Lemur leader in King Julian, played by CBBC and Strictly’s, Karim Zeroual. This part was always going to be so much fun but he really just brought so much light and laughter to the theatre. From him entering on his knees, which is so impressive that he managed to dance like this, to his incredible moves and his epic song. Of course, I Like to Move It!, had to be included within this production and the whole crowd went wild for it. It was truly so much fun and everyone was moving and grooving in their seats. Karim truly did a stellar job at this role and he had the difficult accent nailed down too! 

They had a reprise with I Like to Move It and everyone got up on their feet to end the show- definitely left us on a high! 

Overall, I’m glad the pace and excitement of the show picked up throughout Act Two and I actually left feeling very happy and full of joy. Definitely worth a visit as the children all around us seemed to adore it! Not a long running time allows for it to be much more accessible to both children and those who may not usually access the theatre!  

Madagascar The Musical will ‘Move It, Move It’ on to Sunderland Empire’s stage from Wednesday 22 – Saturday 25 November 2023. Tickets are available online now at*

*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to online bookings. 

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