Photos: A'riel Tinter
Director Leora Morris (Ride the Cyclone, Winnie the Pooh) knows Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience is more than a story about some obscure rodents. Combine a multifaceted message, a rock concert, and some creative costumes, and you’ve got a surefire success.
“It does feel a little bit foolproof,” Morris says. “You take six people and you put them in incredible mole rat costumes, you put a four-piece rock band on stage, you sing amazing songs, and you use as much ‘concert splendor’ as you can. I think it’s hard to be bored.” After a humble pause, she adds, “I hope.”
Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed unites the quickwitted charm of Mo Willems with a rock concert score by Debbi Wicks La Puma, the former hearkening back to the stylings of Charlie Chaplin and “Who’s on First?” and the latter bearing undertones of “seventies rock glam” a la Queen and Janis Joplin.
“We’re pretty deeply into drawing inspiration from and quoting specific rock figures,” reveals Morris. “And that’s one of the treats for the parents. I don’t know that the grade threes are going to notice when we drop in a riff of Major Tom or something from Elton John, but the adults will definitely get those stylistic quotes, which is really fun.”
She says it was not uncommon in rehearsal to say, “Could you just make this section a little bit Freddie Mercury?” and receive the response, “No problem. We just need an organ sound.”
In conjunction with the irresistibly fun style, Willems gently weaves an important message, relevant to all ages.
“I think what I love so much about it is that Mo specifies in the text that it’s not a ‘shutting out’ story. It’s a ‘letting in’ story,” Morris says. “And even more than focusing on the character who feels excluded and then welcomed in, I think the play sort of turns the camera lens on the folks that are doing the shutting out. Once they are able to open their minds and begin to contemplate a whole other way of being, they actually discover all kinds of freedom, joyfulness, and playfulness inside themselves.”
While the naked mole rats are discovering how to open themselves up to new possibilities, Morris hopes the audience will take a page out of their book and ask how they can do the same in their own lives.
“It’s just such a wonderful invitation to all ages to consider, ‘What limiting beliefs are we holding onto without even realizing it, and what might be available to us if we give ourselves an opportunity to try thinking a different way?’”
At the end of the day, Willems does not choose to tell this story of acceptance through a modern, relatable setting. He uses naked mole rats. And that’s what Morris thinks is the great achievement of this piece.
“In some ways you could say, ‘Oh, this is about a kid who wants to dress in a way that he’ll get made fun of.’ Or you could use it as a stand-in for so many different longings that maybe come with a certain amount of stigma in society. But ultimately Mo has just found this animal who, at the essence of its identity is naked. And so without making it too real, he kind of finds his way into something really deep, but with all of this comedy and all of this strangeness of these giant naked mole rats who sing rock music.”
Above all, Morris wants this musical to show young people how engaging and unforgettable theatre can be.