Continuing the trend of movies becoming musicals and titles of shows adding “the musical” to the end of them to differentiate from the movies they come from, comes the latest: Shrek The Musical.
A hit on Broadway, the touring version of the show has come with a myriad of changes: The book by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the relentlessly depressing play Rabbit Hole) has been re-worked, the sets made simpler and the song order has been changed in an attempt to make the show more streamlined. Luckily I went to see this version with someone who had seen the Broadway production and was able to point out the differences in a compare-and-contrast way. In her words, the humor was dumbed down and the emotional connection seemed a bit lost in the switch-up of songs. She also thought the sets were oversimplified whereas the Broadway version was very intricate.
But how does it stand up to someone who has not seen the Broadway version?
First, let’s take a look at plot of the stageshow. We open on the 7-year-old green ogre named Shrek (Hayley Feinstein) being sent out into the world by his unconcerned parents (“Big Bright Beautiful World”). Told he is ugly and creepy and will be a fright to anyone he encounters, Shrek gathers his meager belongings and heads away from home. He is quickly met with fear and disdain being not only continuously insulted and run away from, but almost burned at the stake.
Years later, the adult Shrek (Eric Petersen) settles into a swamp and isolates himself from society by becoming a foul grump. It’s not until a cadre of fairy tale characters arrive that he is forced, once again, to deal with the outside world and find a way to become a kindler, gentler version of himself.
These fairy tale characters are being banished by Lord Farquaad (David F.M. Vaughn), a fey self-appointed king with a crippling case of short-man’s disease. Amusingly played by Vaughn, he performs the character on his knees so as to give the illusion that he is a wee man. This joke is funny in a vaudeville sort-of-way and the creators play it up in various sight-gags and musical numbers (“What’s Up, Duloc?”).
Shrek is sent to stop Farquaad from banishing the characters to his swamp as he wants to be left alone. As he travels to Farquaad’s theme park castle, he meets Donkey (Alan Mingo Jr.) a wise-cracking, nervous and all-around annoying animal that attaches himself to Shrek and becomes a part of his overarching journey.
Meanwhile, Farquaad wants someone to rescue a trapped princess so he can marry into her family and become a “real” king. So after hearing Shrek’s request to get rid of his unwanted guests, he sends Shrek to complete the task and in return he will make the characters leave his swamp. So Shrek travels a bit more to a dungeon/tower watched over by a fire-breathing Dragon (Carrie Compere) with the voice of Aretha Franklin.
Once Princess Fiona (Haven Burton) is freed and enters the picture, the emotional ache of the story begins with both Shrek and Fiona acting like the David and Maddie from “Moonlighting.” Once they discover they have some things in common, however (farting and burping oh my!), the attraction between the two begins to form.
Anyone who has seen the original Dreamworks’ film will know the outcome of the story and all the directions it takes in between. The enjoyment comes from the staging and the performances. Your overall connection to the play will determine if those qualities are good enough to make it worthy of your time or not.
The cast is completely game and their energy is palpable. The problem is the book which relies on stale jokes that appeal to general audiences and a storyline that seems like a “greatest hits” of the Shrek film rather than a full story that has some emotional heft to it.
Burton’s Fiona is a fun character and her voice is truly remarkable. The song that marks her life from age seven onward (“I Know It’s Today”) is the highlight of the show, yet comes so early in the story this becomes a problem. Petersen is fine as Shrek but there’s a talkiness to his singing voice that doesn’t let it soar until late in the second act in his ballad “When Words Fail.” As written, his role takes a backseat to the more showy characters like Donkey, Fiona, and Farquaad. Even Pinnochio and the Dragon upstage the ogre which is an issue when the show is called Shrek.”
Overall, it’s a fairly entertaining production and the audience seemed to enjoy it enough, but it seems truly aimed at the younger set and for those who don’t frequent musical theatre. It’s a bit like watching a too-long show at Universal Studios. There was a point where, as an adult, I felt a bit silly trying to take it seriously as musical theatre. That said, there is an audience for it. It’s not a travesty, it’s just not the pinnacle of the craft.
Shrek: The Musical continues at the Pantages Theatre through July 31. Tickets can be purchased by visiting broadwayla.org. Photo by Joan Marcus