'Shrek: The Musical' is a delightful adaptation of the beloved animated film
“Shrek: The Musical,” the stage adaptation of the first chapter in the juggernaut computer-animated franchise, jumps into real space satisfyingly and believably, exploding with towering musical numbers, jaw-dropping puppet work and fantastical costumes. It also achieves the rare feat of being every last bit as good as its source material.
“Fairy tales should really be updated,” says one of the main characters, giving the fourth wall a good old fashioned wobble. If only they could all be modernized this well.
The first “Shrek” movie’s eye-popping visuals and tongue-in-cheek meta jokes rewrote traditional notions of both fairy tales and animated movies. Its unique humor appealed to both kids and their parents, who had grown cynical of traditional Disney treacliness. “Shrek the Musical” shares all of that cross-generational appeal and sufficiently continues to distance itself from Mouse House fare. A good chunk of that credit can be attributed to the abundant fart jokes, which really have room to, ahem, breathe live on stage. It is also now able to add the modern Broadway musicals to its list of targets.
The stage adaptation is unfortunately saddled with the ho-hum plot of its movie parent (rescue the princess, belch, repeat) but writer David Lindsay-Abaire has used the thin script as a framework to craft inspired new songs. The music by Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change”) pays mocking homage to “The Lion King,” “The Producers” and “Wicked”—even as it approaches the soaring greatness of each one. Yes, the music really is that good.
As a family-oriented, musical fantasy/comedy, special care needs to be taken to make the audience comfortable in this yeah-right world. The opening songs, “Big Bright Beautiful World” and “Story of My Life” do just that, transporting the audience into the land of Duloc, where fairy tale characters freely interact with each other. “Welcome to Duloc”/“What’s Up Duloc,” introduce us to Lord Farquaad, a mesmerizing love-to-hate villain played to delicious camp by David F.M. Vaughn (dancing on his knees, no less). “Forever” plays as a cousin to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a pulse-pounding torch song that will woo even the most heart-hardened. But it is Shrek’s own “Build a Wall,” a throwing-down-the-gauntlet ballad in the vein of “Les Miz,” which serves as the heart and soul of this production.
As Shrek, Eric Petersen lumbers across the stage menacingly enough. His electric green head and barrel-sized chest make it nearly impossible to take your eyes off him. As an ogre, he’s not supposed to be particularly good on his feet — and he isn’t. Instead, a bevy of back-up dancers and a strong supporting cast provide the more impressive choreography. Several numbers, including “Freak Flag,” “This is Our Story” and the tap-dance-heavy “Morning Person” keep the audience locked in between plot points.
Each of the fairy tale characters, particularly Pinocchio (Blakely Slaybaugh) and Gingy (voiced by Aymee Garcia), feels fleshed out in their alternate-alternate universe embodiments: Pinnochio is a pathological liar, Gingy is a cranky micro-midget. Haven Burton as Fiona holds her own against the more physically dominating Shrek and Donkey (Alan Mingo, Jr.), and she quickly and easily morphs from dainty princess to squirrel gut-snarfing slob and back. But this was all Vaughn’s show: Farquaad had the funniest songs, the most inventive dance numbers, and best lines, all delivered with fun melodramatic flair. Just watching him dance around on his comically spindly prop legs was worth the trip.
Finally, Emily Cramer deserves big credit for her role as the off-screen voice of Dragon, whose timber-rattling “Forever” is the highlight of the show. You can practically feel the dragon-fire heat with that number.