Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed | Theater review
Mo Willems is something of a celebrity in our house, with books like Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Cat the Cat Who Is That? in full bedtime rotation. So it was a no-brainer for us to borrow Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed from the library in anticipation of Lifeline Theatre's musical adaptation. The short and (characteristically) funny story concerns Wilbur, a naked mole rat who discovers that he likes clothes and would rather don some duds. This throws the colony into a tizzy, ostracizing the dapper young rodent.
But when Grand-pah, the "wisest and most naked naked mole rat," hears Wilbur's simple question, "Why not?", he decides to make a proclamation. Spoiler alert: Grand-pah likes clothes too. The moral: How one naked mole rat chooses to express himself may not be for all naked mole rats, but naked or not, acceptance wins the day. Clearly, adapter Robert Kauzlaric had his work cut out for him, stretching out a very simple and short story to an hourlong production.
But Kauzlaric's expansion is really strong. The play decenters Wilbur—whose main role here is to sing, dance, and don astronaut suits and fringed cowboy vests—in favor of his best friend Esther (not in the book). While Wilbur has the courage of his passion to insulate him from the bullies, Esther has to try to understand her best friend and withstand peer pressure to denounce her be-slacked buddy. So, while the book requires little more than an old man's proclamation to make intolerance go away, the moral conundrum of the play runs deeper. Wilbur will do as Wilbur does, but the screws are put to Esther.
In that sense, the play communicates the difficulty and triumph of choosing acceptance over repudiation in a much clearer way. It almost reads as "It Gets Better" for the sandbox set (though, unlike that project, the play makes the salient point that it should really be better right now).
The song-and-dance numbers are relatively forgettable. Were it not for my notes, I couldn't recall any of the tunes. But the actors are clearly having fun onstage, which is contagious in the audience. Mike Ooi as the teacher Mr. Clear and the formidable Grand-pah has the best pipes (poor Nathaniel Niemi as Wilbur gets drowned out by the music) and just the right amount of ham in his mole rat. Meanwhile, Morgan Maher as the braindead bully Beauregard hits all the right comic notes. All of the characters seem at home in their pink "naked" tunics, and Niemi employs some impressive gymnastics jumping in and out of clothes. Those brightly colored costumes, designed by Kimberly G. Morris, really make clothes look fun.
As I was heading into the show, one of the Lifeline staffers joked that my two-and-a-half-year-old (the theater recommends the show for 5 and up) sitting on my shoulders would be the one writing the review. And given that he laughed, cheered, clapped and called out to Wilbur throughout the entire thing, that fourth star is for him.
Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed continues Saturdays at 1pm and Sundays at 11am and 1pm through May 6 at Lifeline Theatre (6912 N Glenwood Ave, 773-761-4477, lifelinetheatre.com). Tickets are $15.