REVIEW: Fiona: The Musical is Great Family Fun

Review by Noah Moore 

There’s no other place in the world where you can see breakdancing giraffes, an oxpecker rap battle, and everyone’s favorite hippo than at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. Fiona: The Musical is making a big splash in an original, world-premiere production. Inspired by the triumphant tale of Cincinnati’s beloved Fiona the hippo, Fiona gives you something to grin about. 

The Plot 

Despite the well-known story of Fiona, this show adds levity to the heroic tale. We see the tender first animal date between her parents, Bibi and Henry. Eventually we are introduced to Fiona, their baby hippo. Born six weeks premature, Fiona is under constant supervision by the zoo veterinarians and care team. There are moments that many doubt if she can survive, even less be reunited with her parents. Though a sadder start, it’s much more enjoyable knowing her victorious end. 

Throughout the show, under the care of Zoe the zookeeper, we see Fiona grow and thrive, and dodge the thwarts of her fellow zoo animals (cue the dancing giraffe). Through a hilarious and heartfelt musical journey, with resplendent music and lyrics by David Kisor and a sharp book by Zina Camblin, the story we all know so well comes alive. The tunes are catchy and fitting for the show’s tone. Especially high praise is due for the comedic song, ‘I Want My Fans Back,’ where the giraffe grows jealous of Fiona’s fame and, naturally, raps about it. As a children’s show, it also packs in lessons on acceptance and perseverance, and comes together for a sweet, slick end product for all ages.

In FIona the Musical, Fiona reunites with her parents, and wears a tutu to celebrate during the title number.
Fiona reunites with her parents, and wears a tutu to celebrate during the title number. Photos by Ryan Kurtz.

Performances  in Fiona: The Musical

No need for suspension of disbelief–from Bibi’s agape smile to Fiona’s loveable meekness, the performances create a seamless convergence of humans and puppetry. Fiona the Hippo, played by Erin McCamley, gives us a loveable character to root for, and even picks up some humorously-awkward dance moves. Her moments with Zoe, the zookeeper played by the loveable Brandi La’Sherrill, are packed with heart. Playing Fiona’s mother, Bibi, Sara Mackie hilariously perks her mouth like a hippo and packs some of the show’s best comedic punches–you should see her upon learning that Henry the hippo is on the way! 

The ensemble, led by the oft-mentioned dancing giraffe of Darnell Pierre Benjamin, play several roles, but are most enjoyable as their animals. From a UC Bearcat to a Flying Pig-running ostrich, the endearing Cincinnati jokes somehow land perfectly through the context of zoo animals. If you look up toward the rafters, you also might catch the zoo DJ, a red panda played by KG Rucker, humorously grooving to the tunes of the show, which is a fun touch.

The zoo animals gather to find out what the new zoo baby will be, singing ‘Zoo Baby, New Baby.’ Cast of Fiona: The Musical. Photo by Ryan Kurtz
The zoo animals gather to find out what the new zoo baby will be, singing ‘Zoo Baby, New Baby.’ Cast of Fiona: The Musical. Photo by Ryan Kurtz

Technical Elements 

One of the best surprises of shows here is just how much the theatre is transformed for each production. In Fiona, long straw and fences line the walls, with huge, abstract letters used for different scenic elements that spell Z-O-O. From the creative use of the set to the gorgeous flooring and turntable, Brian c. Mehring and his team deserve high praises. 

The show is full of colorful stage pictures, thanks to vivid costumes, overseen by Maria Fernanda Ortiz Lopez designer and costume shop manager Hannah Dringenburg. The designs carefully teetered between humanistic and animalistic, from sleek, wire hippo hats to oxpecker feathered caps. Cincinnatians will love the work of Shannon Rae Lutz’s properties team for giving us Skyline, LaRosa’s, and Grippo’s all in one show. 

In Fiona the Musical, Hippo parents Bibi and Henry first meet and fall in love, before giving birth to our beloved title hero.
Hippo parents Bibi and Henry first meet and fall in love, before giving birth to our beloved title hero. Photo by Ryan Kurtz.

Overall 

Though this is a family show, audiences of all ages will love the humor, heart, and tenacity. In Fiona: The Musical, Ensemble Theatre tackles one of the city’s most famous stories with acumen, and delivers both earworms and ear-to-ear grins. Director D. Lynn Meyers has given Cincinnati a holiday gift to treasure.

Tickets are Going Fast to Fiona: The Musical

Check out Fiona: The Musical. It runs through December 29 at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, and beware of any giraffes with ulterior motives. Tickets are going fast. Click HERE for availability.