To slightly adjust children’s author Mo Willems’ excellent text concerning naked mole rats:
1. They are a little bit rat with great singing voices.
2. They are a little bit mole and can tap dance.
3. They are all naked, but the actors are wearing hefty, well-padded suits with rat tails attached. Incidentally, the large suits are helpful with social distancing.
“In hindsight, it was a great choice,” said Jeremy Franklin, music theatre professor in Colorado Mesa University’s theatre arts department and the director for its season-opening production.
“Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience” was selected in early March, prior to the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, to lead off the 2020–21 season.
It has a cast of just 10, six actors on stage and four understudies back stage to help with costume changes and the many other production details.
As the musical adaptation of Willems’ children’s book, it’s only about an hour in length and well-suited to the university’s plan to film and stream its productions online, Franklin said.
The musical also lends itself to clever blocking to allow for social distancing on stage, and the smaller cast has been able to take advantage of special singing masks — the design keeps the mask’s fabric away from the mouth — at its rehearsals, Franklin said.
All that is needed now, is an audience.
“Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” will be performed for in-person audiences at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 17–19 and Sept. 24–26, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20, and Saturday, Sept. 26, at Robinson Theatre in CMU’s Moss Performing Arts Center.
Tickets cost $22 for adults, $18 for seniors 60 and older and $8 for students and youth. Tickets can be purchased at coloradomesa.edu/tickets.
“Naked Mole Rat” also will be filmed so it can be streamed online at home by individual viewers for $10 or by a family for $30. Streaming options and details can be found at showtix4u.com/event-details/39552.
“Naked Mole Rat” tells the story of Wilbur, a naked mole rat who discovers that he adores wearing clothes. This flummoxes and eventually angers his fellow naked mole rats who take the issue to Grand-pah naked mole rat to settle.
Unlike the book, the musical’s audience will get to see the moment when Wilbur first puts on clothes and finds them wonderful, but then goes through an internal battle about whether wearing clothing is the right thing for him to do as a naked mole rat, Franklin said.
Other than that, and the songs and a huge tap dancing number in the middle of the production, the musical closely follows the storyline of Willems’ book, he said.
“It’s very much a kid friendly show, but much like a Disney movie, there are little Easter eggs, jokes only older patrons are going to catch,” Franklin said. It’s not innuendo, but “jokes over the heads of kids … I just think it’s a charming show.”
And even with the musical’s smaller cast and shorter production length, quite a bit of time and energy was required to adjust the production process in light of COVID-19, he said.
Many theaters or theater programs across the country have stopped performances because of the pandemic. CMU is one of the few programs that decided to innovate to continue and find a way to keep students and staff as well as patrons safe, he said.
To that end, the cast, crew and faculty already have been tested for COVID-19 and will continue to be tested each week before performances, he said.
Members of the audience must wear masks and will be seated with rows and empty seats between groups and 25 feet or more from the actors, who will not wear masks while on stage, he said.
“Naked Mole Rat” will be filmed early next week so it will be ready for patrons who choose to stream it and so it can be shown in School District 51 classrooms.
For a show such as “Naked Mole Rat,” normally the house would be packed with elementary school children brought to CMU for special performances, Franklin said.
That’s not a wise idea right now, but fortunately, the performance can go to them, he said.
Streaming offers the possibility of including even more students than the number that would have fit into Robinson Theatre, and it also allows CMU to reach out-of-town viewers with its productions, he said.
That potential extends to the play “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” that opens Oct. 30 and the fall dance concert “Embracing the Shadow” set for Nov. 13–14.
This version of “She Kills Monsters” was recently created by the playwright Qui Nguyen for digital-only performances, and as such will only be available for viewing online, Franklin said.
CMU’s theatre arts season will continue in spring of 2021 with “Cabaret,” “Miss Holmes” and the dance concert “Shifting Focus.” However, how these performances unfold will depend on the status of the pandemic and related restrictions.
“We’re having to treat each production individually,” Franklin said.
For information about CMU’s theatre arts season, go to coloradomesa.edu/arts/theatre.