Zina Camblin’s 'Fiona: The Musical' Brings Heartwarming Story of Cincinnati’s Fiona the Hippo to the Stage

“Fiona’s character is really relatable because it's someone who the odds are against. And then, in the end, she beats the odds."

click to enlarge David Kisor and Zina Camblin creating Fiona: The Musical. - Photo: Provided by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Photo: Provided by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
David Kisor and Zina Camblin creating Fiona: The Musical.

This story is featured in CityBeat's Nov. 1 print edition.

Next month, one of Cincinnati’s most well-known residents and her inspirational life story will be presented on the stage. She was born on Jan. 24, 2017, six weeks before she was due, with little hope for survival. 

Cincinnati’s Fiona the hippopotamus is the smallest Nile hippo to ever survive, according to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s website. Thanks to her innate sense of perseverance and strength along with Cincinnati Zoo staff expertise and 24/7 care, she overcame her life-threatening circumstances. 

Her survival story, which was shared in real time by the Cincinnati Zoo during the first two years of her life, became an international sensation. It was shared on platforms from the New York Times to local media, and it trended on social media and has been turned into multiple children’s books.

On Nov. 29, Fiona: The Musical will make its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, conveying Fiona’s captivating life story live on stage. Fiona: The Musical was commissioned by Ensemble Theatre and written by Zina Camblin with music and lyrics created by David Kisor. 

“It’s just such an incredible story,” Camblin tells CityBeat. “This is something that really happened that is so wonderful and so magical, that my job as a writer is not really to write the story, but to honor the story. And to turn the version of the story that is, into something theatrical.”

By the time Fiona debuts, Cincinnati-native Camblin will see her second world premiere of a play in just two months’ time. In October, Camblin’s Wrecking Ball premiered at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. As an experienced TV writer, playwright and producer, Camblin says her love for musical theater was born during her time in Cincinnati at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

“[The musical] is a love letter to Cincinnati and it’s a love letter to the zoo,” Camblin says.

The show is full of Cincinnati references, she tells CityBeat. Camblin and Kisor collaborated closely to ensure Fiona, the zookeepers and other animals were depicted accurately with lively, individual personalities. Camblin wanted to bring life to animals from the zoo that typically don’t get a lot of attention. Then, she thought of human characteristics that mirror those animals to personify and animate those animals. 

Audiences will meet the head zookeeper, a neonatal nurse, zoo staff, a giraffe, a pelican, an ostrich and, of course, Fiona, among others.

“The idea just struck me as really funny of matching these human personality traits with a particular animal,” Camblin says. “You know, like, in my imagination, what would a giraffe be like if it was human, what would that personality type be? Or what would a pelican be like? I tried to choose animals that don't usually get the spotlight. So there's no Bengal tiger. There's no lion. There's no traditional bear; there's no elephant. Those are the animals that always get the love. And these are more animals that don’t always have the limelight.”

Fiona however, loves the limelight, as Camblin has gathered from visits to the Cincinnati Zoo. Fiona is always doing something funny and, seemingly, for attention. She has a loud, lovable personality that audience members of all ages will be able to relate to, especially the underdog (or “underhippo”) aspect. Camblin says themes of friendship, triumph, beating the odds, determination and compassion are woven throughout the story.

“Fiona’s character is really relatable because it's someone who the odds are against. And then in the end, she beats the odds,” Camblin tells CityBeat. “She’s a character that is fighting to survive and fighting to be a real hippo. It’s like, you have to go through that phase of believing in yourself and knowing you can do it and all of those things that every human being has had to face in one way or another. And maybe people don't think you can do it, whether it's your parents or friends or society that isn't allowing you to accomplish those things. So how do you believe in yourself? And how do you come through that? It’s a miracle story. Fiona was not supposed to survive and she did.”

Fiona didn’t do it on her own, either. Camblin says Fiona: The Musical reveals how support can positively impact someone’s life journey. She says the story shows how zoo staff and the community came together in support of Fiona, whether it was tangible or through love and attention; people came together in support of her survival and that, on top of Fiona’s strength, was a key factor in her triumph. 

Viewers are in for a treat when it comes to the visuals. How does the creative team accomplish a zoo atmosphere? How does one depict a hippo on stage? The costumes, designed by Maria Fernanda Ortiz Lopez, are a feat of creativity and manage to be simple yet accurate and detailed, Camblin says. Don’t expect mascots on stage or cumbersome costumes. 

In fact, each actor – apart from Fiona and the head zookeeper – depicts two characters. Each actor depicting a human on stage has an animal counterpart that they transition back and forth from throughout the show. So, the 16 talented actors that complete the ensemble actually represent 20-plus characters in the story. 

For now, the creative team and cast are working through a few more weeks of rehearsal to prepare for the world premiere of Fiona: The Musical. Camblin says the partnership cultivated between her and Kisor writing and scoring the story was essential to its success and accomplishes a one-of-a-kind version of this Cincinnati story that has been shared and told so many times before, but never like this. 

Fiona: The Musical, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, runs from Nov. 29-Dec. 29. Info: ensemblecincinnati.org.

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About The Author

Katie Griffith

Katie Griffith is CityBeat’s arts and culture reporter. She proudly hails from the West Side of Cincinnati and studied journalism at the University of Cincinnati. After freelancing for CityBeat for many years, she is happy to continue sharing arts and culture news and stories in novel ways as a staff writer.
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