A lithe and Lycra-clad lion is hob-nobbing with a posse of cuddly-waddly penguins while various furry fun-balls – who turn out to be lemurs – are chin-wagging with the mangier critters who are the Scary Foosas, their sworn enemies in the wild. Wherever you look, it's as if they have all just stepped out of the animated frames of the Madagascar films that have delighted audiences of all ages worldwide. That the resemblance between the stage and screen characters is so striking is a hallmark of the effort that's produced Madagascar Live!, a crack-a-lackin' musical based on the original Dreamworks blockbuster movie.
From the Central Park Zoo in New York, where we first encounter Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the hypochondriac Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo, to the sunny shores of the Madagascar paradise where King Julien, Lord of the Lemurs, issues upbeat invitations to "Move it! Move it!", there is an attention to detail that doesn't miss a trick. And there are plenty of cute tricks that come on board for this escapist tale of jungle adventure, friendship and courage (with a sprinkling of heart-warming romance for added "aaawww..." factor).
Kevin Brannick, who stage-manages this touring menagerie as it travels round the UK – it fetches up at Glasgow's SECC on Friday – leads me to where the subway car that spirits the runaway Marty and his chums to New York's buzzing Times Square is propped up in the wings. It may be a slide-on/slide-off cut-out, but the accuracy it displays is hugely close to Brannick's heart. Homing in on the subway map reproduced on the carriage, he points in quick succession to various stops.
"This is where I grew up. That's where I went to high school. There's where I went to college. This map is where I come from. Every show, I look at that map and it just sums up for me what we've tried to do with Madagascar Live! Of course it's a fantasy. But like the film, we want to locate it in a reality that people can recognise."
By now, we're standing in front of the backdrops that swish the main characters from their caged environment in the zoo to the blue skies, sandy beaches and sunshine coast of King Julien's island haven. The silky swathes of material are, Brannick tells me, all hand-painted. "All of the drops reference actual locations," he says. "And even if audiences don't know those places, have never been there, it's important to the show that they're 'right'. If you were to stand in Central Park South, that's the New York skyline you'd see, just as the Madagascar drops are based on places that David (Gallo), the Tony Award-winning designer who created our sets, has accessed on his own trips. It's his experience, his eye, that I think brings a very special quality to the staging.
"It doesn't only look wonderful, it allows us to have the kind of really fast, smooth scene changes that mean there's a cinematic feel to the show. And when you have audiences full of kids who know those films, they do have expectations of how they want it to look. The big plus is that the animals are real people. Best of all, they don't wear masks. The costumes are designed so as the audience can see the actors' faces, see their expressions changing, hear their voices – see them as 3D characters who can bring their own personality to the animated creatures the kids already feel they know."
Taking a break between the two shows of the day at Newcastle's Metro Radio Arena are a couple of those much-loved characters, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo. Out of costume, they prove to be two genial young Americans, Jeremy Greenbaum and Nicole Turner respectively. While Alex the Lion and Marty the Zebra can cut a dash in figure-hugging, minimal body suits, these two have had to come to terms with a new dimension to their own physicality. For Turner, the amply stuffed rump that makes Gloria such a hip-hip hippo still packs its own challenges off-stage, if not on.
"You become a lot more spatially aware," she laughs. "Like today, I'm ready for a cue and I see two of the stage crew standing together – and I just know. Gloria can't get past them, she can't even get between them, not even sideways on! So yes, they have to 'move it! move it!' out of my way. Sitting down? At the beginning, I just couldn't do it. But it's like learning to move as Gloria in the dance routines. You become aware of how much space she needs, and how to manoeuvre without colliding. So yes, in a way, it's like learning to park a bigger car than you're used to. But there is a real plus, as well: if the venue is cold – because these are all very big arena spaces – Gloria really keeps me warm!"
Greenbaum is nodding along to all this. He too has had to adjust to the intrinsic demands of a costume – Melman's stature as a giraffe means Greenbaum spends the whole performance on stilts (with arm extensions that go beyond fingertip length to end in hooves). You'd assume that he was cast because he already had stilt-walking skills. Not so. "I'm so grateful that they were willing to take a chance on me," he says. "But I did have a lot of dance training in my background, I did gymnastics as a child, and my Mom is a yoga teacher, so I grew up doing yoga. So I did know about balance, and being 'centred'. It hasn't been as difficult as you might imagine..."
Even so, it was a gradual process that saw Greenbaum's learning curve gain several inches as rehearsals progressed, until now he's on the full-height stilts that leave him towering over everybody else, including his sweetheart Gloria. "Like Nicole, once I was in costume, I had to start re-thinking the way I move and how I could use that to bring out my character. I'd added a foot to my arms, four feet to my legs – but that helped me find Melman. His lankiness, his awkwardness. It's a physicality that suits how he is, as a person who is totally hypochondriac and definitely not at ease in places where there's no handy disinfectant or medications."
It says a lot for Gloria's wonderful warmth and caring nature that Melman lets her near him, let alone into his heart and his life. And actually it's when Turner and Greenbaum talk about the unlikely romance that pairs a giraffe and a hippo that the whole nature of musical theatre and its appeal comes to the fore. "One of the things we love about Madagascar Live!" says Turner "is the way it has these little messages in it. Gloria and Melman's story is about not allowing society, or convention, to dictate who you love. Or who your friends are, or how you make your choices. And at the same time, there is this wonderful feel-good factor that's like a hug for an audience. I know, myself, that there were times I was having a bad day when I'd go and see a show, wanting to let go of what was troubling me."
Greenbaum picks up her thread, adding that he reckons there is a kind of gene-pool of understanding about musical theatre in America because of why and when it came into being. "It came about in a time of need," he says. "We were at war, we were feeling down-trodden, it was economically tough: hard times every way. And musical theatre just brought so much joy to people. It allowed them to escape. And afterwards, we kept that tradition alive. Now, in the cyclical way that life goes, we're kind of back in tough times and musical theatre is now as relevant – and I think as necessary – as it was last century."
It's time for them to get back into costume for the next all-singing, all-dancing show. Little – and not so little – kids all across the country have been singing and bopping along to more than just King Julius's hit song (I Love To) Move It! Move It!. Glasgow is the last port of call on this UK tour. Even now Kevin Brannick and his team will be preparing to fold the zoo, the subway, the jungle, into five pantechnicons for the journey from London to Glasgow.
Madagascar Live! is at SECC, Glasgow, March 8-10, 0844 581 0600, www.theticketfactory.com, www.madlive.co.uk
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