‘Madagascar Live’ drops anchor in Pittsburgh

By Larissa Gula

When one actor walks onto Benedum Center’s stage performing as a lemur this weekend, it might be hard for the audience to resist singing along with the incredibly catchy lyrics: “I like to move it, move it.” “Madagascar Live”

Feb. 3–6

John Tellem

Benedum Center

Tickets $18-$45

412-456-6666 or pgharts.org

When one actor walks onto Benedum Center’s stage performing as a lemur this weekend, it might be hard for the audience to resist singing along with the incredibly catchy lyrics: “I like to move it, move it.”

Drew Hirshfield plays King Julien in “Madagascar Live,” a family musical based on the 2005 DreamWorks animated film “Madagascar.” The 90-minute show is the first live production by DreamWorks Theatricals, which produces stage productions based on DreamWorks films.

The show follows a group of friendly animals raised in Central Park Zoo that are unexpectedly shipped from New York and shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar. Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo soon meet with the island locals and must adapt to their new surroundings.

Taking a story between two mediums is pretty common, but not always an easy task for directors. But since part of theater is creating a world for people to step into, taking a film to the stage is a little easier because the world has already been envisioned, according to Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts.

“The challenge with a show such as this is meeting filmic expectations,” Jackson-Schebetta said in an e-mail.

However, Jackson-Schebetta stressed that the two different mediums just offer two ways of looking at the same project and “Madagascar Live” will probably do things that the film could not.

“[Theater] engages the imagination in different ways. It asks us to imagine along with the actors and story on stage,” she said.

Hirshfield was intrigued by the idea and imagination behind the show from the beginning, attending audition after audition before receiving the part of King Julien, a lemur who rules over his tribe on Madagascar.

Hirshfield plays one of the smallest animals in the show. Aurelia Williams, however, plays one of the largest: Gloria the hippo.

Originally a psychology and education major, Williams began to sing in high school for fun, but never took singing seriously until a friend in graduate school urged her to audition for shows. Williams took the advice and began receiving callbacks and job offers even before she finished her degrees.

Williams finished school and received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University and a subsequent master’s degree in elementary education, but she opted to go forward with her theater career.

“My parents thought it was too important to at least try,” Williams said.

The idea was that if she didn’t like it, she could go back to the education field, Williams said. Eleven years later, she has no interests in leaving, and her favorite roles on the stage let her laugh and make the audience laugh as well.

Williams thinks that the role of Gloria is perfect for her.

“Gloria is hilarious,” Williams said. “I cannot wait to get an audience in there because we’re laughing just as a cast and crew.”

Williams was already a fan of the movie when she heard about auditions. The live show has more songs than the movie and also expands on the characters and jokes that played on screen, Williams said.

The biggest challenge isn’t the singing or the dancing, Williams said. The biggest challenge is the fact that she plays a hippo and has to dress like one.

“I’ve never played an animal, number one, much less a hippopotamus,” Williams said. “My costume is just big with a big booty. Gloria is famous for that at this point. The spatial awareness with this costume is a little different. I have to watch out because I can knock things over.”

The costumes are a point of interest for Hirshfield as well, since they do pose a “particular challenge,” he said.

“The costumes are bulky,” Hirshfield said. “They are absolutely amazing to look at — beautiful, incredibly creative, elaborate — but because they are so unique they do create some challenges for the actors.”

“Each costumes is made from various materials specific to each animal,” Williams said. “Mine is made from a wrinkly velvet material like looks like a hippo, and my face has a headpiece where you can see my head. You see our faces and know we’re there. It’s a collaboration of the person and taking on the sense of the animal. It’s not a typical kids’ show where you see big fuzzy heads with bodies bumping around. I’d see it without kids.”

But aside from the difficulty of the costume, Williams raves about working on the show.

“The music is fabulous,” she said. “That’s what makes this different: It’s a musical with original scores. I don’t think you can compete or compare to a live dancing and live singing and costumes. It’s magical.”