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‘Madagascar’ cast exudes animal magnetism at Chicago Shakespeare

Stephen Schellhardt (from left), as Melman the giraffe, with Gilbert Domaily as Marty the zebra, Jordan Brown as Alex the lion and Lisa Estridge as Gloria the hippo in "Madagascar - A Musical Adventure" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | LIZ LAUREN

If you think the 2005 DreamWorks film version of “Madagascar” was animated, be advised: You ain’t seen nothing yet. The stage musical inspired by that film is now generating 70 minutes of perpetual motion and nonstop joy at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater where a cast of living, breathing, feverishly animated humans possesses enough energy to power every man and beast between New York’s Central Park Zoo and the large island nation in the Indian Ocean that gives the show its title. It is, without question, the hippest, funniest, most anthropologically mischievous musical in town.

‘MADAGASCAR – A MUSICAL ADVENTURE’

Highly recommended

When: Through Aug. 27

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $22-$34

Info: www.chicagoshakes.com/madagascar

Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission

Billed as the theater’s annual summertime “family musical,” and recommended for ages five and up (although I watched a wholly entranced 14-month-old in the audience gleefully clap to the rhythm of every song), “Madagascar” could easily serve as a guilty pleasure for “unaccompanied adults.” In fact, it might just be the ideal tonic for any grownup in search of a brief, zany escape from news of the real world.

And the credit here belongs to every artist involved. That includes Kevin Del Aguila, whose unfailingly clever, satirical script has inside jokes about everything from commuters and sushi enthusiasts to germ-aphobes, and George Noriega and Joel Someillan, whose sensational score ranges from the wildest, playfully booty-shaking “I Like to Move It,” to a sea chanty, a bit of Afro beat and a big tap number inspired by thoughts of a juicy steak.

Aaron Holland (center) plays King Julien in “Madagascar – A Musical Adventure,” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | LIZ LAUREN
Aaron Holland (center) plays King Julien in “Madagascar – A Musical Adventure,” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | LIZ LAUREN

Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell (of “Ride the Cyclone” fame) is at her very best here, making the most of every moment of sophisticated comedy and sassy swagger while also offering a few nods to “The Lion King.” Music director/pianist Jermaine Hill (a driving force in Griffin Theatre’s recent “Ragtime”) brings snap, crackle and pop to every number, winningly tearing through Matt Deitchman’s terrific orchestrations.

The cast? Irresistible triple-threat actor-singer-dancers who seem to be running on high-power batteries as they spin the tale of the odyssey of a group of animals at the Central Park Zoo who run away from their Manhattan home and end up in the wilds of Madagascar where they must adapt to a very different way of life.

The instigator of the escape is Marty the zebra (Gilbert Domally), the freedom-seeking creature celebrating his 10th birthday who is fed up with having to “perform” for the zoo’s visitors, and aches to live in “the wide open spaces” of the African savannah where he belongs. When he suddenly heads out on his own (with some advice from a Mafia-like group of penguins played by Adrienne Storrs, Erica Stephan and Tony Carter), he is pursued by his best friend, Alex the lion (Jordan Brown), a rock star-like narcissist who depends on a diet of red meat; Gloria the hippo (Lisa Estridge), the sassy female of the group; Melman the giraffe (Stephen Schellhardt), an unintentionally hilarious hypochondriac; and Mason (Garrett Lutz), a sour-tempered chimp.

Suffice it to say, after causing considerable havoc at Grand Central Station, the “animals” are all put into crates to be shipped off to a wildlife preserve. When they wash ashore they think they’ve landed at the San Diego Zoo but learn they are in Madagascar, where King Julien (Aaron Holland), assisted by Maurice (Holly Stauder), his skeptical adviser, rules the lemurs (winningly realized by puppetry designer Sarah E. Ross), and fends off the dangerous green-eyed creatures called fossas.

Marty could not be happier with life in Madagascar, but the seaweed diet there is anathema to Alex who craves craves the red meat he was regularly fed at the zoo. Can the king of the jungle learn to live on sushi? Will the adventurers remain in this imperfect paradise, or will they return to New York? No spoilers will be supplied here.

Not only is every performer (including ensemble members Ciera Dawn, Ron King and Hanah Rose Nardone) bursting with personality. But all take full command of the stage for which set designer Scott Davis has devised a malachite green floor, African textile backdrop and seaweed chandeliers. As for Jesus Perez’s smile-inducing costumes (paired with wigs and makeup by Richard Jarvie), they all but steal the show, with the tails on Marty and Alex doing a priceless dance of their own.

The penguins make a getaway in “Madagascar – A Musical Adventure,” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Aug. 27. | LIZ LAUREN
The penguins make a getaway in “Madagascar – A Musical Adventure,” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Aug. 27. | LIZ LAUREN