Lisa Estridge (Gloria), Stephen Schellhardt (Melman,) and Jordan Brown (Alex) in a scene from Madagascar, directed by Rachel Rockwell, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Lisa Estridge (Gloria), Stephen Schellhardt (Melman,) and Jordan Brown (Alex) in a scene from Madagascar, directed by Rachel Rockwell, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

The musical adaptation of Dreamworks Animation's 2005 hit movie, now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, will no doubt be an introduction to the world of live theater for many young patrons. With a tight 70-minute running time, familiar characters, and a plot that never strays from its source material, Madagascar is a safe bet for kids who are wary of trying new things.

Marty the zebra (Gilbert Domally) dreams of running free in the African savannah, far from the gawking crowds and tall fences that surround him at the Central Park Zoo. His best friend, the attention-hungry Alex the lion (Jordan Brown), is perfectly content to stay where he is, adored by the zoo patrons and fed a regular diet of fresh steak. When Marty finally makes a break for it, Alex follows after him on a "rescue mission" accompanied by fellow zoo denizens Melman the giraffe (Stephen Schellhardt), Gloria the hippo (Lisa Estridge), and Mason the monkey (Garrett Lutz). Accompanied by a quartet of hyper-competent penguins (Leah Morrow, Tony Carter, Erica Stephan and Adrienne Storrs, all big hits with the kids in the audience), the hapless zoo animals are thrown into a series of madcap misadventures through New York City, a cargo ship, and, of course, the titular African island.

In Madagascar, they meet a band of besieged lemurs that conspire to keep the intimidating Alex on the island for good to scare off the carnivorous fossa, a cat-like carnivore species that preys on them. Meanwhile, Alex and his friends come to realize what never occurred to them at the zoo: the steaks that Alex is so fond of are, in fact, animal flesh. Though on paper this may seem like unexpectedly heady material for a children's show, don't worry, Madagascar never explores or resolves the issue of Alex's carnivorous urges in any significant way. Everything is strictly safe for even the most tender-hearted child.

While the musical is perfectly primed to capture the attention of the kids in the audience, unfortunately it has little to offer the adult chaperones. The original music and lyrics by George Noriega and Joel Someillan are more repetitive than catchy, though they are performed with high energy by Madagascar's cast, backed by Matt Deichtman's offstage orchestrations.

Most of the songs are sung by Brown and Domally, who should be commended for finding moments of humor in even the most tedious of refrains. Brown, a charmingly old-school song and dance man, is given better material than the very funny Domally, but they both acquit themselves well. The supporting cast is generally underutilized, but Aaron Holland delights the kids in the audience as King Julien, the leader of the lemurs.

Director Rachel Rockwell keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, but glosses over what could have been some funny physical moments if given a bit more time and room to breathe. Sarah Ross's puppet designs cleverly help Holland and the ensemble give big energy to the pint-size lemurs. The projections, designed by Shawn Sagady, elicit laughter from the kids — particularly an extended dream sequence featuring a kaleidoscope of meat-shaped emoji. Jesus Perez's costumes and Jesse Klug's lights are brightly colored and whimsical, and Scott Davis's set is minimal, trusting kids' ample imaginations to create a vivid world for the furry characters. The overall aesthetic is sometimes closer to an amusement park parade than it is to a large-scale musical, but if it can hold the attention of little children — and it certainly did at Saturday's matinee — then Madagascar must ultimately be counted as a success.