Mo Willems’ rock ’n’ roll stage adaptation of his 2009 children’s book “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” was a little too risqué for the the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which politely declined to work with Willems and composer/musical director Deborah Wicks La Puma on their latest collaboration.
The Kennedy Center previously premiered two of their shows designed for young theatergoers: 2011’s “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” based on Willems’ 2003 book of a similar name, and 2015’s “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” based on Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series.
The word “naked” in the title was an issue, says Wicks La Puma.
Despite the rejection from the Washington, D.C. institution, Willems and Wicks La Puma — also the composer of the children’s musical adaptation of Chelsea Clinton’s “She Persisted,” currently running in Berkeley — persisted.
Seattle’s Children’s Theater eventually commissioned and premiered the show in March 2018. And it’s playing at both South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and the Newmark Theatre in Portland, Ore. through Feb. 17.
“I was wondering how Mo was going to deal with [the anxiety around the word ‘naked’] and then I got the lyrics for his opening song, and it was like ‘We are naked, naked, naked, naked mole rats,’” says Wicks La Puma, laughing. “I was like, ‘OK, we’re clearly not backing off of this at all. We’re going to say this word 20,000 times until everyone gets the giggles and just gets over it.’”
“Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” tells the story of Wilbur, a naked mole rat that is different than all of the other naked mole rats in his colony. He likes wearing clothes. This threatens everyone’s ideas of normalcy, and it’s a tale about Wilbur’s plight to express his unique self.
There are no references to rock music in the picture book.
“But it has that slightly subversive edge, the play on words with the naked mole rat getting dressed,” says Wicks La Puma. “And something about the rock energy was right for that, so it has this edge and just a little bit of danger, but of course, in a safe and fun way.”
Willems and Wicks La Puma knew their show could be young kids’ first experience with rock ’n’ roll, so they made sure to add in all the tropes of a rock concert — the lights, the fog, the jam sessions, the audience interaction.
They took little moments from the sweet and simple picture book and “exploded” them, says Wicks La Puma. Musically, they were inspired by David Bowie, Queen and all the glam rock musicians who were already taking rock music to a theatrical place.
Wilbur’s friends’ reactions to his clothes (“Eeeewwww!” “Yuck!”) in the book turns into lyrics in “Scandal,” an epic “Bohemian Rhapsody”-style musical number which, in sections, goes from headbanging to grunge to Beatles-inspired.
Wilbur asking “Why not?” when his friends angrily scream “Naked mole rats don’t wear clothes!” turns into another ensemble number.
And there’s puns and wordplay galore for the parents’ amusement; for example, frequent “topless stories” updates from CNN, the “Constantly Naked Network,” and Wilbur (Daniel Bellusci) opening a clothing store called Hats & More, aka H&M.
In the book, Wilbur’s judgmental naked mole rat friends don’t have names, but in the play, Tall (Nicole Cowans), Grande (Melody Butiu) and Venti (Marqell Edward Clayton) are nods to the shows’ world premiere in Seattle, home of Starbucks.
Wicks La Puma says the actors get quite a workout prancing around in grey, padded naked-mole-rat-shaped fat suits with squiggly tails and big shiny silver buttons as belly buttons. But they have a good time.
As for the Kennedy Center’s concern that people might complain about a naked, naked, naked, naked children’s show?
“As far as I know, we have not gotten any letters, so I think their fear was unfounded,” says Wicks La Puma. “But who knows?”
IF YOU GO
What: “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience”
When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 17, with an ASL-interpreted performance on Feb. 16 at 2 p.m.
Where: Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $23