THEATRE REVIEW: Shrek the Musical

Broadway goes Green! Pictured: Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona. Photo by Joan Marcus

Based on the William Steig book and popular 2001 DreamWorks animation motion picture (voices by Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz), this monstrosity of a musical makes its trudge to the Great White Way. I mean, monstrosity, in the nicest way possible. Fortunately, Shrek the Musical, which clocks in at an agile 2 hours 25 min, earns the affection it requires to make this contemporary-fairy-tale-love–story-of-“inner beauty” digestible without the indigestion. Speaking of, there is plenty of flatulence and ogre burps to make the kids laugh while making you just about to feel uncomfortable in your seat.

Early on, we meet a cavalcade of fairy tale creatures who arrive in a swamp land having been expelled from their familiar region of Duloc. Among the characters, insert a strangely falsetto-voiced John Tartaglia (Avenue Q) as Pinocchio. In Duloc, Farquaad’s magic mirror has convinced him that he must marry one princess Fiona who lives at the top of a tall tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. He hires Shrek to do the deed, and when Shrek saves Princess Fiona, an onion-layered courtship ensues. Add to that a cast of 30, extravagant costumes, high-tech effects, a cavernous set designed by Tim Hatley, and $24 million dollars later, you have an entertaining romp for the whole family.

Like its predecessor, using rude humor and pop culture references, Shrek the Musical, has a concise book and lyrics penned by David Lindsay Abaire (Rabbit Hole). Along with an impish wit, Abaire’s ability to guide laughter into silent wonder is primarily why this production works. There is a steady stream of “Oh, no you didn’t” campy behavior performed playfully by Daniel Breaker (Passing Strange) as Donkey. A tad juvenile, if slightly “limp hoofed,” it is because of Breaker’s comedic chops that make this potentially ass-making role enjoyable. Much can be said of his sidekick, Shrek, played honorably by Brian d’Arcy James. He is camouflaged by impressive green prosthetics, but we are drawn to d’Arcy’s rich baritone voice that can summon a wide range of emotions. In the song, “Who I’d Be,” d’Arcy performs with warmth and understanding, showing that beneath the repulsive green exterior is a lonely creature longing for love and acceptance.

Potentially, the most comic role is that of Lord Farquaad played with enthusiasm by Christopher Sieber (Spamalot). Sieber spends the entire show on his knees to convey the dwarf sized Farquaad, and his opening number, “What’s up Duloc?” which channelling a Vegas night club act, is the highlight of ACT I. The story and the dancing pick up the pace at the top of ACT II with “Morning Person” sung beautifully by Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie). Sort of A Chorus Line meets Saturday Night Fever this showstopper complete with a row of tap dancing rats is a reminder that Broadway magic is still possible.

Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) composed the earthly poppy score with roots in bluegrass and gospel, but in retrospect it sounded more like Muzak at its most forgettable. Jason Moore’s (Avenue Q) brisk direction helped to match the diligent yet otherwise un-magical choreography by Josh Prince. This is the first collaboration for DreamWorks Theatricals and Neal Street Productions (Sam Mendes), and it rivals the highly successful Wicked that also tells the story of a misunderstood and green-skinned outsider. It seems that having green skin is a natural ingredient for a smash hit on Broadway, but does Shrek have the “green thumb” needed to keep it growing in today’s economy? If the theatre seats can’t stay filled we may not be surprised to hear Shrek singing instead, “It’s not easy being green.”

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Kila Packett

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