"Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed:" A Story of Style (and Substance!)

Andy Knight
 | Jan 25, 2019

Naked Mole Rat Logo

In the underground colony of naked mole-rats, two things are true. Number one: everyone is totally naked (that one should be obvious); and number two: everyone loves to rock. For most naked mole-rats, that’s enough—rocking out clothes-free means rocking out carefree. But not for Wilbur J. Mole Rat Jr. He’s grown tired of the monotony in the tunnel and wants something more. Unfortunately, he’s not quite sure what that something is.

And then, as if in answer to his daydreams, a hat falls from the sky. And then a shirt. And then a pair of pants, a blazer, a tie! With a full outfit at his feet, Wilbur decides to do something no naked mole-rat has ever done before: Wilbur gets dressed.

When Wilbur shows off his new outfit to his friends Grande, Venti and Tall, they are shocked, disgusted and, frankly, offended. They’ve said it time and time again: naked mole-rats DON’T WEAR CLOTHES. But Wilbur likes the way he looks, and sees nothing wrong with a tasteful ensemble. And so, against the advice of his friends, Wilbur decides to share his passion for fashion with the colony and open his very own clothing store.

Wilbur’s store, Hats & More, causes quite a scandal. But the colony’s outrage quickly turns into full-blown panic when more clothes begin to rain from the sky. Amidst all the chaos, Wilbur realizes that his simple decision to get dressed has had serious repercussions. And yet, he isn’t sure what to do next. Will the colony ever accept a not-so-naked mole-rat? Should he just give in and go nude? Or is it, perhaps, best that Wilbur leave the colony altogether?

Mo Willems

​Mo Willems

Debora Wicks La puma

​Deborah Wicks La Puma

In Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience—a new musical adapted from the children’s book by Mo Willems—a naked mole-rat who’s just a little bit different than everyone else makes the decision to stop conforming. His friends, happy with the status quo, struggle to understand why—why does Wilbur need to wear clothes? And when he can’t give them a satisfactory answer (or, rather, an answer that they understand), they dig in their heels and try to change him back into the naked mole-rat they always thought he was. But it doesn’t work; it only makes things worse. And so, it becomes clear that asking Wilbur why he needs to wear clothes is, in fact, counterproductive. Perhaps there’s a different question—a rhetorical one—that’s better suited for this situation. And posing that question just might be the key to embracing Wilbur’s decision and to establishing a better, kinder order in the colony.    

At its core, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is about the importance of acceptance. It’s a lesson at the center of many children’s stories, but rarely is it brought to life in such a fun, vibrant way. Author Mo Willems and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma have adapted Willems’ book into a lively musical, with equal parts humor and heart. It’s full of cheeky wordplay (with “naked” in the title, how could it not be?), eccentric characters and raucous original music—music with a distinctive sound that adult audience members might recognize.

“The music is a celebration of classic rock,” La Puma says. “I consider it almost a primer for young audiences who might not be familiar with the sounds of some of my favorite artists. With nods to David Bowie, Queen, Heart, Pink Floyd and ​Jimi Hendrix, I hope to capture the energy of rock to tell the story of a sweet mole-rat who is a little different.”

Naked Mole Rat’s energy delighted audiences in the spring of 2018, when the musical premiered at Seattle Children’s Theatre. And now South Coast Repertory is bringing it to the Julianne Argyros Stage (February 1-​17, 2019) in an all-new production.

Naked Mole Rat Scenic design

​Designer Keith Mitchell's Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed scenic design model.

SCR’s production of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is directed by Casey Stangl, who has helmed a number of productions at the theatre (in both the Theatre for Young Audiences series and in SCR’s standard subscription series). Stangl calls the story “simple, sweet and deeply moving” and one that “celebrates life, tolerance and differences.”

With her vast experience directing productions for young audiences, Stangl knows that creating the world of the play is particularly important to the storytelling. That’s often a tough job, especially in Naked Mole Rat’s case, which is set in a series of underground tunnels. But Stangl and her imaginative design team have embraced the challenge and created something that beautifully marries the naked mole-rats’ natural habitat with a rock venue. The set, designed by Keith Mitchell, has the earth-tone look of an underground colony, but it also evokes the spectacular presence of an amphitheater, specifically the Hollywood Bowl. Jeff Polunas’ sound design plays with acoustics, juxtaposing the contained, area-specific soundscape of the tunnel with the overpowering energy of rock music. And Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes add bursts of color to the underground’s naturally muted palette.

Stangl has also assembled a first-rate cast for the production. Daniel Bellusci, who appeared in Nate the Great earlier this season, returns to SCR in the role of Wilbur J. Mole Rat Jr. Melody Butiu (Grande), Gina D’Acciaro (Secret Service Mole and others) and Joel Gelman (Grand-Pah and others) also return to SCR after appearing in recent productions. Marquell Edward Clayton (Venti) and Nicole Cowans (Tall) make their SCR debuts in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and buy tickets.