Dec. 1 2010 12:00 AM

Forget 'Shrek': Musical 'Puss' has a style all its own


Pre-dating the Dreamworks films by almost 10 years, Bill Helder and Jane Zussman’s mirthful meta-musical "Puss in Boots" bears little resemblance to the "Shrek" epics. No computer-generated characters or celebrity casting are necessary to make this family musical comedy fun for young children and parents alike. Plentiful audience interaction, crowd-pleasing performances, and a modest running time make "Puss" a welcome respite from the Hollywood and holiday machines.

Adapted from the French fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the Helder/Zussman "Puss" mostly maintains the original story of a cunning fashion-inclined feline who cons the king and others to grant unearned royalty to his humble and less ambitious master. Caste-blind love has replaced the cynical morals of "clothes determining class" and happily ever after is now only a few steps away from pop-culture zingers in lyrical rhyme. The show’s comedy, however, is most effective when turned on itself, such as when characters sing apologetically to the audience for the length of the scene changes.

Under the direction of Zussman, the cast plays to the child-filled audience that fuels the actors' zaniest performances.

Donna Green has clearly studied housecats in preparation for her role as the title character. Green strides about the stage with the vanity of the diva Bernadette Peters and the languid frustration of a passive-aggressive mother. She is countered by the ego-fueled Ogre, played by the exuberant and excellent Mike Stewart. Although Stewart is dressed like Henry VIII with Lady Gaga eye makeup, he owns every moment that he is on stage, prompting the audience to pine for his return late in the second act.

Evan Pinsonnault plays the king’s courtier Maurice with flamboyant zeal. His precise British accent and measured facial reactions provide some of the show’s biggest laughs. Bob Murrell holds the production together as the narrating Donkey, ensuring that the story trots along at a steady pace.

Murrell proves to be as sweet when interacting with children as he is funny, when dryly and hilariously explaining the importance of proper scenic design in the song "Why You Had to Wait."

Doug Austin’s musical direction and accompaniment provides well-balanced support to the varied voices singing his tuneful score.

'Puss in Boots'
Riverwalk Theatre
228 Museum Dr., Lansing
7 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 5
$7 adults, $5 children
(517) 482-5700