Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Rick's review of Fiona the Musical
For those who might not know, Fiona is a hippo born six weeks prematurely at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2017 who quickly became a celebrity locally and beyond. The musical is based on her story, has both animal and human characters, and is a whimsical mix of history and fantasy. The book is by local writer Zina Camblin and includes many storylines, such as the courtship of Fiona's parents, the challenging pregnancy of her mother, Fiona's struggles as a newborn, the zoo staff who nurtured her, the citizens touched by her story, and the reaction from her fellow zoo animals, including some who were jealous of her social media fame. There is a sufficient balance of humor, tenderness and conflict, and the show is entertaining for both children and adults. With most of ETC's original musicals, the piece is improved upon in subsequent productions. With Fiona, the show could use some trimming and focusing, as some storylines aren't currently fully developed and feel like filler.
David Kisor is the ETC resident songwriter for these December shows. His score for Fiona uses various musical styles effectively, and contains many witty and apt lyrics throughout. The music is fairly simple in structure, but befitting the material. Standout songs include the soft-shoe romantic duet "A Hippo In Love," "Born on Land" (which features beautiful choral work from the cast), "Some Catchin' Up to Do," the hip-hop "I Want My Fans Back," and the rousing finale "Fiona The Hippo." Kisor's orchestrations for the musical accompaniment, which was recorded by a ten-piece band, include having a tuba represent the hippos much of the time, which is quite well-suited.
Director D. Lynn Meyers does her usual first-rate job of bringing all of the theatrical elements of this production together into a cohesive mix. The tone of the piece seamlessly fluctuates between serious and playful as is appropriate to the story. The presentation of several of the attractions in the zoo during "Dream Date" are especially inventive. There are a few bits of audience interaction that go over well also. Choreographers Dee Anne Bryll and Darnell Pierre Benjamin provide appealing and varied dances for the ensemble (and Mr. Benjamin's solo work as a performer is noteworthy–including a fierce death drop move). Musical director Steve Goers has prepared the singers well for executing the vocals throughout.
The ETC cast is a mix of regulars and newcomers. Local favorite Erin McCamley embodies and conveys the tender, tenacious, and endearing qualities of Fiona, and sings very well. Brandi La'Sherrill is likeable and shows off many talents as Fiona's primary zookeeper Zoe. Much of the story centers around Zoe's struggles for acceptance and self-worth which closely parallel those of Fiona. Sara Mackie is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Fiona's hippo mom Bibi, and it's praiseworthy how she can communicate so much with just her facial expressions, in addition to her dialogue and singing. Darnell Pierre Benjamin has wonderful stage presence and hits comedic gold as both Giraffe and Dr. Cornelius. The entire cast does a great job (many of them play both a human and animal character), with special shout-outs to R. DeAndre Smith (Henry), Brooke Steele (Colobus Monkey/Diana), Elexis Selmon (Yellow Oxpecker), Emmy Rice (Ostrich/Teen), Kate Wilford (Red Oxpecker), and Andrew Maloney (Pelican/Zander).
Brian c. Mehring's scenic design features a large ZOO sign, with the middle O doubling as the hippo pool. The multi-tiered set includes a turntable and the entire space is surrounded by wood and bamboo to really replicate the look of the Cincinnati Zoo. Mehring's lighting is professionally rendered and melds well with the set. The costumes by Maria Fernanda Ortiz Lopez are playful, inventive and attractive.
The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati provides a family-friendly alternative to the many holiday-themed events in town each year with their musicals, and presenting an original piece about a local icon is smart. This show will hopefully be further refined and improved, and presented by ETC in the future in an even stronger version. Meanwhile, the current piece remains an inspiring tale of resilience, hope and survival, featuring fun characters and a tuneful score.
Fiona the Musical runs through December 29, 2023, at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-7226. For tickets and information, visit www.ensemblecincinnati.org or call (513) 421-3555.