On the surface, the naked mole rat doesn’t seem like a creature with a lot to teach us. But popular children’s author Mo Willems knew better when he wrote the book Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, and then adapted it into a stage musical with music by by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” plays through February 17 at the Newmark Theatre, directed by OCT Artistic Director Stan Foote.
In Willem’s musical, Wilbur (Martin Hernandez), the naked mole rat of the title, discovers he’s a little different. He wants to wear clothes, you see, which is frowned upon in a community (or underground system of tunnels) where no one has ever done that before.
After all, when we are first introduced to the naked mole rat society at the beginning of the show, they are singing the “Naked Rules!” — which includes the lyrics: “Part mole, part rat, totally NAKED!” So, by the time Wilbur belts out “Time to Get Dressed” the show’s second musical number (in which he questions who he is and whether it is okay to be who he wants to be), we all know the rules — and the implication is that Wilbur should too.
The themes here are heavy and important, but done in a fun way so that kids get the message — “It’s okay to be different” — without feeling lectured.
All the characters in this show are “naked” mole rats, but don’t worry: It’s all kid-safe fun! They are fully clothed, but in clever costumes (kudos to costume designer Sydney Dufka, wardrobe manager Emily Horton and costume design apprentice Zyla Zody) that let them somehow pass as naked mole rats.
The cast seems to have so much fun with the silliness of depicting singing mole rats that the kids in the audience will have a great time. But Willems hid some jokes for grown-ups in there too (“business casual is an oxymoron,” for example, and the character names, Tall, Grande, and Venti, likely resonate more with mom and dad than the kids).
That enthusiastic, talented cast is led by Hernandez, a Young Professional at OCT, who can sing, dance, and fully convince you he is a naked mole rat who both wants to fit in and be himself. Marcelino Hernandez (Venti) has fun as the guy who just goes along with his friends (and says “Dude!” a lot). Julia Meyers is more than just tall as Tall: She is the most sympathetic toward Wilbur from the start, so kids can relate to her kindness. Aida Valentine is sweet as Grande, a counterpoint to Wilbur who believes all rules should be followed — even if that means Wilbur hiding his true self. Tina Mascaro and John Kish play various naked mole rats (Mascaro is hilarious as the Weather Mole and Kish hams it up to equal effect as the news anchor at CNN (the Constantly Naked Network, naturally) and as Grand-Pah, the leader of the mole rats.
Foote’s direction seems to give the actors room to ham it up, but keeps the pacing quick and the story on-track, so the sixty-minute show passes in what seems like even less time. The scenic design by Jessica Moretti doesn’t move around like many of OCT’s productions, but it effectively sets you in the tunnels the naked mole rats call home.
Key to this musical, though, are the on-stage talents of “The Mole-ing Stones”: musical director Mak Kastelic on keys, Gillian Avina on bass, Dave Cole on guitar, and Dianna Hnatiw on drums. The name is appropriate, because they are on a stage on the stage, rocking out and keeping the beat going throughout — while in modified mole costumes themselves.
But if a play about naked moles rats doesn’t sound like your personal cup of tea (or, more fittingly, Starbucks coffee), Willems’ program note reminds us of the reason for adults to attend: “When you’re snuggled in your seats and the curtain rises, know that you’ll see more than just a show; you’ll experience a new, special connection with a child who is special to you. Oh, and that kid will probably have fun, too.” I can promise you that, with this production, at least that last sentence will be true.