Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Fiona the Musical
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Also see Scott's review of Fiona the Musical

The Cast
Photo by Ryan Kurtz
Since 1997, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC) has produced family-friendly, nondenominational holiday musicals based on fairy tales such as "Cinderella" and "Alice in Wonderland." Under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, these shows typically have delightful modern twists and subtle, meaningful morals. This year's world premiere, Fiona the Musical, is something a bit different, a fanciful take on the 2017 arrival of Fiona, a baby hippopotamus born two months early, at the Cincinnati Zoo. She weighed just 29 pounds and had to be nurtured like a newborn in intensive care with the assistance of medical staff from Cincinnati Children's Hospital. She eventually flourished and became a social media phenomenon whose every stage in life has been celebrated by area residents. In fact, Fiona has become a beloved, nationally recognized character.

In 2022, Zina Camblin, a playwright and veteran TV screenwriter with Cincinnati roots, approached Meyers with an idea for a musical about Fiona. Meyers matched her with composer David Kisor, the creator of scores for most of ETC's holiday shows over the years. The result is a charming holiday offering by the company that calls itself "Cincinnati's premiere theatre," routinely debuting new works–often serious plays with social meaning as well as occasional small cast musicals.

ETC's holiday musicals are given the same production values that are applied to its other offerings, especially imaginative sets by Brian c. Mehring, the company's veteran resident scenic and lighting designer. For Fiona the Musical he has created a vibrant zoo environment framed by tall bamboo stalks and featuring a set of towering letters, Z-0-0. The middle letter O is lowered occasionally to become the sides of the hippos' water environment (no water, of course). The inlaid wood floor employs a turntable used during production numbers. There are stairs and balconies that provide plenty of positions for the cast of 16 who double as zoo employees and Fiona admirers as well as an array of exotic animals. The spirited performers are a mix of veteran professionals and members of ETC's apprentice company.

Camblin's antic script provides many opportunities for song-and-dance numbers using Kisor's tuneful score, a smorgasbord of styles from jazz and blues to rap and ballads. Much to delight of local audiences, the story also name checks numerous local favorites, from LaRosa's Pizza and Grippo Potato Chips to the Blue Wisp Big Band and the Flying Pig Marathon. Fiona's story, staged by Meyers, is a joyous, fanciful take on real events that flips back and forth between humans and zoo animals, some of whom are jealous of Fiona's spreading fame. Bridging the gap is a sensitive zookeeper, Zoe (Brandi La'Sherrill, an excellent singer), who can talk to the animals. She steps up to take care of Fiona, played winningly by Erin McCamley from wide-eyed innocence to eager but nervous childhood, yearning to join her parents and to fit in with her fellow zoo residents–even those who scheme to embarrass her.

Chief among her detractors is an inveterate showoff, Raffi the Giraffe (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), the longtime center of attention. Benjamin is an accomplished modern dancer, and he employs an eye-popping array of moves to keep Raffi in the limelight. Nevertheless, Fiona's fame is spreading far and wide, so one of Raffi's most amusing numbers is "I Want My Fans Back," accompanied by a Yellow Oxpecker (Elexis Selmon). High above the action is an animated Red Panda (KG Rucker) who DJ's the show's pre-recorded musical accompaniment.

Kisor's song "Dear Fiona" is a touching montage of everyday citizens (Sara Mackie and R. DeAndre Smith, who also play Fiona's parents, and Emmy Rice, doubling as an ostrich) who write to thank Fiona for inspiring them to overcome fears and concerns. "The Oxpecker Battle Rap" between Selmon and the Red Oxpecker (Kate Wilford) invites the audience to cheer boisterously for their favorite. Such engagement with theatregoers, especially young ones, is a longtime feature of ETC's holiday shows. The company leads up to its subscription opener with a series of free elementary school performances, and this production is one that will entertain children and adults alike.

Meyers, who has led ETC for 27 years, calls this show "an amazing story about never giving up." That's pretty much her credo and one that has sustained this feisty theater for a long time. She adds, "It's not only a love letter to the Zoo, but also a celebration of extraordinary possibility."

Fiona the Musical runs through December 29, 2023, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, at 1127 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3555.