The kids love it. They shriek, they cackle, and – to the insistent cue of I Like To Move It – they dance in their seats.

It’s the kids, I think, to whom Madagascar – a faithful if frenetic musical version of the franchise-proliferating 2005 DreamWorks animation – is most closely calibrated. Ingeniously introducing the exaggerated character designs of the original into the flatness of the real world, it barely catches a breath as it flosses and dabs to its primary coloured finale.

Former X Factor king, Matt Terry, is headlined as Alex the lion, and he’s an engaging presence – channelling a touch of Bert Lahr’s Oz bluster as well as an enviable Frankie Valli falsetto – but it’s Antoine Murray-Straughan as Marty, the zebra with a dream, who is the rapping, cantering catalyst of the odyssey of oddities, persuading us that the tall tale has a heart.

Indeed, all four principals are unimpeachable, for all that the greatest peril they face is that of being upstaged, firstly, by a quartet of indefatigable penguins under the confident direction of Emma Brunton, and latterly by Jo Parsons’ (literally) knee-high narcissist, King Julien. There’s something of the anarchic spirit of pantomime in the lemur leader, a wink to any adults unmoved by the showbiz fizz.

If there is a caveat to be levelled, it’s that the pizazz that delights the pre-teens allows no pause for the story’s nuance. Even when a ravenous Alex has visions of dining on best friend, Marty, it never quite feels like anything is at stake (or, for that matter, at steak). The best of child-amenable entertainment allows a little disquiet to season the reassurance of the happy ending.

It’s telling, too, that the musical number afforded the most enthusiastic reception is the one adopted by, but predating, the film. The original material, by George Noriega and Joel Someilian, unfortunately, isn’t that original. Relax, Be Cool, Chill Out evokes 80s Prince at his most playful, and the reprised Best Friends has a Tony Hatch-like competence about it, but it’s hard to imagine either being sung ironically at Freshers’ Nights in a decade’s time, however fondly remembered the night at the theatre in 2018 might be.

Ultimately, though, it’s the kids’ verdict that matters. And light wands spinning, half dancing out of the theatre, they love it.

By Desmond Bullen


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