First off, naked mole rats don’t wear clothes, nor do they play electric guitars. But in Imagination Stage’s winter production of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience, they did both and more. They played drums, piano, and other instruments while enacting a rousing musical theater adapation of the beloved Mo Willems children’s book about one of their kind who — yazooks! — decides to strike out on his own and wear clothes. Director Kathryn Chase Bryer also took a nontraditional path, casting actor-musicians who performed the show’s ten songs live while also playing the group of mole rats Wilbur, Grande, Tall, Venti, Stark Naked, and others. The inventive approach made for a successful run in the holiday season and put the production into competition for three awards at Monday evening’s Helen Hayes Awards, Washington’s premier event recognizing excellence in professional theater. Imagination Stage’s production of Naked Mole Rat is up for Outstanding Direction in a Musical (Hayes), Outstanding Production in a Musical (Hayes), and Outstanding Production: Theatre for Young Audiences.
“It’s really nice to be recognized for the TYA [Theatre for Young Audiences] work, because TYA often doesn’t get as much recognition as theater for adults,” says Bryer, who already has two Outstanding Direction in a Musical awards (for a 2018 production of Wonderland: Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure at Imagination Stage and a 2019 production of Fly by Night at 1st Stage). “I’m really proud that we are nominated alongside theaters like Arena [Stage] and Signature [Theatre], who have more resources than we do. [For us] it’s all about creating theater that is excellent for young audiences. We really believe in that.”
Naked Mole Rat is one of several Mo Willems books that have been adapted into musicals. In this case, Willems collaborated with composer and music director Deborah Wicks La Puma, who has a long history with Imagination Stage and has herself won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Musical Adaptation (in 2018, for Ella Enchanted at Adventure Theatre). Naked Mole Rat premiered in 2018 at Seattle Children’s Theater, with script and lyrics by Willems and original music by La Puma. It is their fourth musical collaboration. The Seattle production included a live band performing the show’s ten rock-infused songs that La Puma says were inspired by the glam rock sounds of David Bowie and Queen.
“We were lucky to premiere at the Seattle Children’s Theater, because they always perform with live music,” La Puma says. “It really just elevates any production. I always say that if I win the lottery, I’m going to start a foundation to support theaters to pay for live music. That’s my dream.”
Knowing the realities of theater funding, La Puma and her team recorded the music tracks to Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience for theaters that could not afford live musicians. She estimates that “a majority” of the 24 productions of the show to date have used the recorded music. So she was thrilled to learn that one of her longtime partners, Imagination Stage, was not only using live music but had found actors who could play the songs themselves.
“It’s a really bold choice to have your lead characters also playing the music,” La Puma says. “It can make it hard to cast, but then [the show] is really a quadruple threat. It’s amazing. But you have to know who’s out there.”
Kate Bryer recalls writing to La Puma to ask for her thoughts about staging the musical this way. “I said, ‘I don’t think it’s been done before, but how would you feel if I have the actors play all the instruments as part of the story?’” Bryer remembers. “And Debbie said, ‘That’s great!’”
Bryer says she was not overly concerned about finding actors who could fulfill the show’s musical demands. She had done the same with Wonderland: Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure in 2018 for which she won her first Hayes Award for Outstanding Direction in a Musical.
“There are actually a surprising number of actors who play instruments [in the Washington area], and I know a lot of them from years and years of doing this kind of work,” Bryer says. “I just keep my eye on them, and I know where they are, because I’m always up for somebody who can play and act at the same time.” Bryer says she has had a “special affinity” for actors playing music onstage since seeing a Broadway production of Sweeney Todd done in that fashion years ago.
According to Bryer, the biggest challenge she and her team faced in mounting their production of Naked Mole Rat was the coordination of music cues and blocking, or actor movement. For help, she turned to Music Director Deborah Jacobson, with whom Bryer had worked for over a decade.
“I knew she could do it, because she’s so brilliant,” Bryer says of Jacobson. “But she had to look at the score and figure out how we could orchestrate or re-orchestrate everything. Like, what instruments do you need for each song? When do you need a guitar or a piano or drums? So she had to go through each of the numbers and figure out what was needed instrumentally, and then, I had to go through and figure it out from a movement perspective and a staging perspective. How is that person going to perform that action while they’re carrying a bass guitar, and is that possible? So, that was the challenge. How can [performers] act and play an instrument at the same time?”
Acting and musical performance weren’t the only things that had to be aligned. The musical also involves dance. For that, Bryer called on choreographer Tony Thomas. “Debbie and Tony and I went through each number and decided what all the instruments were going to be,” Bryer recounts. “Then we told Tony, you’re going to have to choreograph this number, but Russell’s going to be playing the piano, and Kathryn is going to be on the bass, and Alana has to be playing a triangle, so just keep that in mind,” Bryer laughs.
Added to the mix was the fact that the production had been cast immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant that everything was on hold for a number of months. Nonetheless, the show did go on, almost a year and a half after it was originally scheduled, during the 2022/23 holiday season, by which time many patrons were returning to the theaters.
For both Bryer and La Puma, all the work seems to have been worth it, whatever happens to that naked mole rat on Monday night. Each seems fairly sanguine about the prospects. What is clear is their shared enthusiasm for and commitment to Theatre for Young Audiences. “I’m always excited when TYA gets highlighted like this in DC,” La Puma says. “I’ve dedicated my life to it.”
For her part, Bryer reflects that even though (or perhaps, because) TYA audiences “age out” so quickly, “we really strongly believe in what we do. We know that we’re building the audiences of the future, and we want them to eat good ‘food’ so they will be healthy. So, they’ve got to have good theaters, so they will become good theater-goers and recognize good work. That’s our job.”
Judging by the Helen Hayes nominations accorded to Naked Mole Rat, it would seem the DC theater community agrees.
COVID Safety: Theatre Washington will follow The Anthem’s mask-optional guidelines.
What to expect at this year’s Helen Hayes Awards (feature by Nicole Hertvik, May 3, 2023)
‘Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed’ at Imagination Stage will rock a kid’s world (review by Sarah Shah, December 4, 2022)
About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place.