‘Fiona’: Cincinnati Zoo’s darling takes the stage in holiday musical at Ensemble Theatre

A musical about Fiona the hippo? Why not? When that chunky little critter was born at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in 2017, she quickly turned into a marketer’s juggernaut.

Fiona illustration courtesy of Loren Long; rehearsal photo courtesy of ETC; design by Elizabeth Mariner
Fiona illustration courtesy of Loren Long; rehearsal photo courtesy of ETC; design by Elizabeth Mariner

Fiona was everywhere. There were T-shirts and mugs and all manner of plush creatures, of course. Nothing particularly imaginative about those. But once she’d been on network TV and had her own Facebook show – remember “The Fiona Show?” – the hype grew into near-hysteria.

People couldn’t get enough of Fiona. Or Fiona merch. There was a Fiona wine-stopper. Fiona dance hoodies and socks. And tiny Fiona the hippo ears. Graeter’s hopped onto the bandwagon, too, introducing us to Chunky, Chunky Hippo ice cream. (For the record, it was toffee ice cream with salted, roasted peanuts and caramel truffle pieces. And it was very tasty.) There was an appearance in Cincinnati Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” a pair of books and, for her third birthday, a limited-edition Rookwood blue ice cream bowl.

So when Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati announced that the holiday show of its 2023-24 season would be a Fiona musical . . . we should have seen it coming.

What we might not have seen coming was who birthed the idea for the show.

A playwright as local as Fiona

Zina Camblin is her name. She is pure Cincinnati. Raised in Clifton, educated at SCPA, she went on to a career as a TV writer (“Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” “Let’s Stay Together” and “Almost Family,” among others) and educator (Northwestern, LSU, Butler and more). 

She had plays produced all around the country, most notably her 2008 work “And Her Hair Went With Her,” which appeared on stages in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City and elsewhere.

But not in Cincinnati.

“I don’t know why that was,” Camblin said. “It just never happened. The thing is, Cincinnati is my place. Yes, I live in LA. And I live in New York. And I go back and forth. But I have this really strong connection to this city.” 

However, something happened this year. Maybe it was a post-pandemic quirk or the light bulb suddenly going on in producers’ minds. Or perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence. Whatever it was, this fall two of Camblin’s scripts have made it to Cincinnati stages.

“Wrecking Ball” had its world premiere in October at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. There was more than a little autobiographical material in the play as it recounted the experiences of a young, queer, biracial woman as she deals with the hidebound world of a Hollywood writers’ room.

And now there’s “Fiona: The Musical,” running Nov. 29-Dec. 29 at ETC, directed by producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers.

“Fiona” costume designs by Maria Ortiz

Love at first hippo

It wasn’t a show that Meyers had gone searching for. For most of her decades-long tenure at ETC, Meyers has looked to the local team of playwright Joseph McDonough and composer/lyricist David Kisor to create new holiday shows.

“But when Zina walked in with this fabulous idea, I fell in love with it,” Meyers recalled. “I said ‘OK, we’ll do it.’ ”

Impulsive? Absolutely. But Meyers has run ETC since 1995 with a mix of guts and savvy that defies logic. Remember, when she arrived as interim artistic director, the board’s charge to her was to shutter the theater – permanently.

Meyers just shrugs.

“We happen to get things right now and then,” she said. “Sometimes, the best thing is not to stop and think about it. The idea for the show was just so fun. Besides, I don’t think you can go wrong with Zina. She is such a talent.”

Still, there remained the challenge of writing music for the show. Camblin isn’t a composer. Meyers thought about bringing Kisor on board again. But how would he work with a new playwright? Musical theater history is littered with talented artists who turned out to be utterly incompatible as creative partners.

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried.

“I didn’t know Zina,” Kisor said. “But it wasn’t awkward at all. It was definitely different from working with Joe, though.”

Kisor and McDonough had worked together for so long that they were like an old married couple, finishing one another’s sentences and fleshing out the other’s ideas. Every couple of weeks, they would meet at Skyline Chili – “probably the same booth,” Kisor said – toss around a few more scenes, return to their respective homes and expand on the scenes they had come up with. Then, they’d do it all over again.

Index cards and the lesser kudu

“Working with Zina, who has written high-profile television shows, was completely different,” Kisor said. “She would put things on little cards and then shift those ideas around and . . . well, it was pretty exciting, actually. She has this pretty nice organized thing going on.”

The first time they met, it was at the Cincinnati Zoo. They wanted to see Fiona, of course. But they also wanted to explore the various animals that would come to be Fiona’s supporting cast.

“We picked animals we had never heard of before – like a lesser kudu,” Kisor said. “So you know what a lesser kudu is? Me, either.” 

(For the record, it’s a medium-sized antelope in East Africa. How does it differ from the greater kudu? It has smaller horns – but more stripes. Go figure.)

In time, there came to be an entire menagerie of characters: a pink pelican, a colobus monkey, and a pair of oxpeckers (birds from sub-Saharan Africa) – one red, the other yellow. 

“I know that people know me for my television work,” Camblin said. “But musical theater has always been my happy place. When I was at SCPA, we used to do our musicals at the Taft Theatre and . . . I don’t know. SCPA just planted that musical theater seed in me. I’ve always, always wanted to take my shot at writing a musical.”

Brooke Steele, Hannah Beaven and
TaShauna Ajoi Jenkins at a rehearsal of “Fiona”

Upbeat story in a turbulent world

Besides, there was something so inspirational about Fiona’s story that it captured Camblin’s attention the same way it did for millions of others around the world.

Fiona was born just four days after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. And the news was filled with uncertainty and unrest: a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec; Romania decriminalized corruption, setting off massive demonstrations all around Europe; savage tornadoes raced through Mississippi and Georgia; more than a half million people converged on Washington, D.C., as part of the “Women’s March” against the new president.

And then, there was the premature birth of a hippopotamus in Cincinnati. No one knew whether the newborn would live or die.

“I grew up right around the corner from the zoo,” Camblin said. “I was a zoo kid. And like everyone else, I was obsessed with the story of that little hippo. I followed the story every day. It was incredible. And then when those amazing nurses from Children’s Hospital got involved? They saved the day. I say forget the Bengal tiger, forget the bearcat, Fiona is really the symbol of this city. She’s our mascot.”

You can see why Meyers volunteered to commission the show. It is precisely the mix of hopefulness and optimism that Meyers loves to capture in ETC’s holiday shows. 

“You can’t bend the world,” Meyers said. “But you can push it. This is a big and expensive show for us.” And, Meyers might have added, this is a time when nearly every theater in the country is struggling to restore attendance to its pre-pandemic levels. Fiona’s struggle to survive mirrors that of so many theaters today.

“What better play could we give our audiences than one about an underdog facing a situation that looks hopeless? The zoo never gave up on Fiona. We’ve been in similar positions in the past. And we never gave up, either. So I know how hard it is. I have so much respect for the zoo and what they did. And for all the people whose love for Fiona made such a huge difference. The question isn’t, ‘Why did we do this play?’ ” It should be, ‘Why wouldn’t we do it?’ ”

“Fiona: The Musical” runs through Dec. 29 at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.

Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

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