Posted at 12:28 PM on February 3, 2011
by Marianne Combs
Filed under: Criticism
Photo by Joan Marcus, Dreamworks Theatricals
"Shrek" - the musical based on the movie - runs at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through February 6. Thinking of going? Check out these reviews:
If you liked "Shrek" the movie, odds are you'll love "Shrek the Musical." It follows the film's storyline very closely -- except for a few worthy additions -- and captures the animated characters surprisingly well in living, breathing form. There's plenty of color, action, dancing, sight gags and great voices belting out lively music. Even the dragon can sing (better than any reptile you've ever seen).
Unlike in the movie, we get to see Princess Fiona and Shrek at the tender age of 7, when each was sent away by their parents to live alone -- Fiona in her tower and Shrek in his swamp. This gives us a sense from the very start that this unlikely pair has something in common -- even before it's obvious to them.
We also get a better sense of why Shrek is angry at the world and why Fiona is desperate for Prince Charming. Eric Petersen gives the green ogre a convincing vulnerability underneath all the growling and farting. Haven Burton has a spectacular voice and an enchanting manner that makes it understandable that an ogre might fall for this princess who can give as good as she gets.
...An animated film couldn't do a sendup of a Broadway number with tap-dancing mice, a pied piper and a princess like this musical does. Cows get tossed over the moon, lyrics mention the tranny wolf (dressed in Grandma's nightgown) and bits parody popular shows from "Les Miserables" to "The Lion King" -- as well as all those fairy tales.
If you're going to do a show that's derivative, flimsy and crass, you might as well have fun.
That seems to be the approach of the accomplished creative team of "Shrek the Musical," which landed with its bevy of well-timed jokes Tuesday at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre.
The Broadway tour of the cartoon-turned-musical elicited whoops of laughter and praise from the many children in the audience. They are certainly the target audience for this fairy-tale remix and sendup that is populated by such characters as Pinocchio, the wicked witch and the cross-dressing big bad wolf.
The deft stagecraft and funny book for this love story about a swamp-dwelling ogre and a princess offer humor for adults, too, even if some of it is burping and flatulent.
I have to admit that I laughed a lot. But it's too bad that so much talent has gone into working on such a thin, contrived piece.
This could have been a lazy creation. It would have been quite possible to take the screenplay for "Shrek" and convert it to the stage. I have seen a lot of musicals that do this, and inevitably suffer for it. As much deserved grief as director Julie Taymor currently gets for her Spider Man musical, her stage adaptation of "The Lion King" carefully and quite dramatically re-conceived the musical for the stage. Smart playwrights have followed suit since, and Lindsay-Abaire and his collaborator Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music, are smart. "Shrek: The Musical" is not "Shrek" the movie. Neither is it William Steig's book that inspired both. It's completely a thing of the stage, and it exhumes themes that the film and the book just touched on. And, more than any other, the theme it is most interested in is as follows: Whatever makes us different also makes us powerful.
You probably already know the story, but, if not, here's as brief an encapsulation as I can provide: A troll and a talking donkey accept a quest from an evil prince to rescue a princess, who herself suffers a curse. Many elements from the film are maintained, including the look of the characters, Shrek's Scottish accent, and the fact that it takes place in a world of fairy tale creatures who know their own fairy tales and riff on them relentlessly.
But I mentioned the imp of the perverse, didn't I? One of the ways this mischievous creature controls the play is in the production's love of stage effects. The play is filled with quick transformations, extraordinary monsters, and images of the fantastic that are generally produced by choosing the creakiest legerdemain possible, being quite obvious about the sleight-of-hand that is occurring, and then referencing it directly.
The villain, Lord Farquaad, is diminutive in stature, and this effect is created by taking a regular-sized actor, attaching spindly legs to his upper thighs, and then having him walk around on his knees. The princess dances with a deer at one moment, and it is clearly an inflatable dummy that she simply drags around the stage with her. She later dances with some rodents, and the effect is created by having a row of tap dancers wear shoes that look like rats. There is a great deal of puppetry in this, including a really enormous, and impressive, stage dragon. And the set moves about constantly, opening and closing to reveal new backdrops, a trick beloved by Victorian melodramas and updated by having what looks to be a giant LED screen at the back of the stage that can transform into whatever is needed.
Shrek the Musical feels overstuffed with tepid numbers, especially in the second act. You wouldn't think of Shrek as a compelling character study, and it's surprising that it comes as close to being one as it does--the fruit of strangely extensive efforts in that direction. You would, however, think of Shrek as a gently irreverent good time, and in that respect, this musical delivers.
...Whatever cleverness was born in the original 1990 book by William Steig and was preserved or sharpened in the 2001 motion picture, it has survived this 2008 musical adaptation--directed by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford--as a steady haze of diffuse wit with occasional peaks poking up through the people-pleasing veneer. My favorite was the surly gingerbread man who barks, "Eat me!"
...The performers who make the strongest impressions are those who seem to know that they have the best material to work with. Vaughn marches around on his knees as the diminutive Lord Farquaad, creating a simple sight gag that at first seems that it will never get old; it does in fact get old somewhere in Act Two, but Vaughn makes a good run of it. Burton's characterization is exceptional; she finds precisely the right tone as a beautiful princess who's a fun-loving ogre at heart.
...Given the wild success of the Shrek movie franchise, it was inevitable that there would be a Shrek musical--and so here it is, and it doesn't suck. "It could have been cut by an hour," observed my mom, "and everyone would have walked out feeling really good about it."
So - have you seen "Shrek?" What did you think? Share your review in the comments section.