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The Best Kid’s Comedy Musical With Talking Cadaver Heads You Will Ever See

March 8, 2023
Artwork for The Mortification of Fovea Munson at The Kennedy Center. Artwork by Julia Kerschbaumer.

When the giant frog spilled its costume cloth innards onto the stage, the crowd roared with laughter. Not only the kids but also the adults. That’s the kind of vibe you’re signing up for when you see The Mortification of Fovea Munson at the Kennedy Center. I was all in!

Two years ago, I read Mary Winn Heider’s hilarious book that the musical is based on. When I gush about The Mortification of Fovea Munson, I say, “It’s about a young girl who has to work in her parent’s cadaver lab, and the heads start talking. It’s a comedy!” The looks I get are priceless. They’re like when I’m at something fancy, and I introduce Cake Man as my ex-boyfriend, which is technically true ever since we got married.

I don’t usually go to shows at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater (see inappropriate behavior above), but Fovea was surrounded by special circumstances.

When I fangirl-emailed Mary Winn Heider to tell her how much I loved her book, I got back one of the loveliest, most exuberant emails I have ever received. In a competition between me and her for who could use the most exclamation points in an email, she would win. I didn’t know I could be bested in that.

Not only is Heider ridiculously nice and funny, but she is also involved in Chicago theater. She let me know that The Mortification of Fovea Munson would be a musical premiering at the Kennedy Center, and she was helping to craft the production!

Me at the Premiere of The Mortification of Fovea Munson

I had to see how all of it would work out. My expectations were high. My concerns were specific.

How would Heider and Justin Huertas, who wrote the music and lyrics, going to incorporate everything that made the Fovea book wonderful? There’s intrigue! Angst! Severed body parts! A love triangle! Embarrassing parents! Grandma Van’s obsession with death! Oh, and the talking cadaver heads.

On the day of the premiere, under-12’s packed the Family Theater. Many dressed up for the occasion. I was worried. At Ford’s Theatre once, I sat next to an 8-year-old seeing A Christmas Carol for the first time. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was far too scary. There were tears. That was just one ghost. Fovea would have three dead people talking, decaying, and talking about decaying. The subject matter required delicate handling, especially in a darkened theater filled with kids.

I shouldn’t have worried. The show was amazing. Cake Man was impressed. So was the rest of the audience!

The Fovea set — It’s about to begin!

The Fovea set was simple and perfect. You can’t go wrong with crooked purple and green walls and doors plus a red-tinged see-through plastic curtain. I mean, I guess you could go wrong, but not in this musical! The cast sang well, with a strong early performance of “Dead Bodies are the Worst!” by Justine “Icy” Moral as Fovea Munson. Fovea is the first Filipino American musical theater production for young audiences at the Kennedy Center. I loved that the ethnicities in the book were reflected in the casting. Each actor had standout moments accompanied by audience cheers.

More than anything, I was impressed by how well the musical handled death. The humor that permeated the book was present onstage, even more so when living characters faced some aspect of mortality. The talking cadaver heads were puppets voiced by visible adult actors speaking and singing. The deeper death-thoughts scenes included a large frog puppet and an actor hilariously frogging it up. Those puppets and the later frog-with-innards costume were exactly what was needed to keep the mood light.

The show was wonderful. What a treat to see a book I love become a successful musical.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson has a two-week run at The Kennedy Center. If you miss it, don’t despair! I am completely sure this Fovea production is the first of many to come.

The book that started it all!
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