Theater Review: Shrek, the Musical an eco-friendly green
By Bill Beard
I became acquainted with the work of William Steig in 1942, when I purchased his then new book of cartoons at the UCLA bookstore. It was called The Lonely Ones, and was a collection of wonderfully offbeat cartoon figures in bizarre situations, each one evoking mixed emotions of some repulsion, some sadness, but nevertheless, great fun—the sort of thing one is almost embarrassed to laugh at, e.g., a pitifully sad but soulfully sweet-looking creature with the caption of “Mother loved me…but she died.” I laughed.
Almost 50 years later, in 1990, this same writer came out with his 33rd release, about a sad but sweet ogre named Shrek, again invoking almost embarrassed laughter.
However, when Dreamworks released the original film of Shrek in 2001, I tried to ignore its good reception as long as possible. It was the last movie I thought I could enjoy. When a friend finally coerced me into seeing it, I entered the theater scowling and resisting. Two hours later, I came out smiling and apologizing. In the end, I had found it delightful.
Then, when Shrek, the Musical opened in 2008, I found myself again questioning its chances of success. Again, I was wrong! It’s a gas! Or, perhaps I should say, “gaseous.” (More later.)
Now enjoying a successful run at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, this is the debut venue for Shrek, the Musical’s first national tour, playing through Sept. 5.
The stage version follows the screenplay quite closely: the story of a swamp-dwelling green ogre who goes on a life-changing adventure to reclaim the deed to his beloved swamp. With his new wise-cracking friend, Donkey, and the encouragement of a collection of displaced fairy tale characters, Shrek manages to journey forth to challenge an enormous dragon, rescue the beautiful (most of the time) Princess Fiona, and learns that real friendship and true love can come to anyone and everyone who believes, and who keeps trying to find the best in one’s self and others. And, of course, meantime we all learn again that one must not “judge a book (or an ogre) by its cover.”
This is certainly an all-the-family show, with great appeal for children and plenty of both sly wit and bawdy slapstick for the adults. [Note: Even the movie’s extensive belching and flatulence are here confined to one major song, “I Think I Got You Beat,” a sort of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” contest between Shrek and Princess Fiona.] In fact, friends who saw the original in New York tell me this reworked tour production is much improved, and is somehow softer and seems to have found its human self.
As for me, although the first 30 minutes seemed to be confused and confusing, by the end of Act I, things had found more focus and direction. Then, with Fiona’s powerful Act II opener, “Morning Person,” the scene was set for personal interaction, and the delightful chemistry between ogre and princess blossomed in the gaseous gayety of the above-mentioned “I Think I Got You Beat.” And the show was finding its heart.
In spite of the bulky prosthetics required to make himself up as an ogre, Eric Peterson (from the New York cast) brings a real humanity to the character. Shrek’s frustration from the first moment we meet him is real, and we cannot help but root for the underdog; and when he wins the Princess, we rejoice. We realize we have been given a hero we can love. He is absolutely endearing. Petersen’s soul-stirring rendition of both “When Words Fail” and “Who I’d Be” makes one ask: “How could anyone not love this guy?”
It’s easier to love Princess Fiona from the beginning. And when she reveals her secret, we know that romance will win the day. Haven Burton, also from the New York cast, is beautiful, sings splendidly and has a warmth and wit that gives the role true charm. She also hoofs it flawlessly with a chorus line of rats!
The villain of the plot is the wicked Duke, Lord Farquaad, described as “vertically challenged.” Stepping into the role the day before the opening night, David F. M. Vaughn played the dwarf-like Farquaad by walking on his knees, with little legs dangling in front of him, the rear view hidden by a floor-length (that is, knee-length) cape. Pompous and constantly preening, Mr. Vaughn’s Farquaad stole every scene.
Alan Mingo Jr., as Donkey, Shrek’s tagalong buddy, is indeed “loveably annoying,” but doesn’t quite match the level of the others. Maybe I’m just hooked on the film’s animation and Eddie Murphy’s vocal prowess; but I needed more energy, more spirit, more spunk from this little sidekick.
There were an abundance of fine voices in this marvelous cast, a few of which included Sandra Denise as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Holly Ann Butler as the Wicked Witch and Aymee Garcia as Mama Bear. The entire ensemble is splendid.
But the piece de resistance for this reviewer was the Dragon, a combination of the magnificent voice of Carrie Compere and the literally fantastic artistry of the 40-foot puppet, created by Tim Hatley and manned from beneath by several black-costumed stage workers. Mr. Hatley also designed the show’s scenery and costumes, for which he won the 2009 Tony Award.
For me, that dragon, with those sad, expressive eyes, was the crowning achievement in the establishment of the warm, human charm of the whole show. Take the family to see it!
With book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abair, music by Jeanine Tesori, and directed by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford, Shrek, the Musical plays through Sept. 5. For tickets and information, call 800-775-2000 or go to shrekster.com/chicago.
From the Aug. 18-24, 2010 issue
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