Shrek The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 20, 2008
I had a great time at Shrek the Musical. For sheer imagination and engagement—especially in terms of its production design, which is one of the finest I've ever seen for a Broadway musical—it can't be beat. And if you're looking for something fun and wholesome (in the best sense of that word) for the youngsters, Shrek is ideal.
I was unfamiliar with the William Steig and only marginally familiar with the DreamWorks hit film that are the inspiration for Shrek the Musical. My companion, a Shrek fan, tells me that the show is remarkably faithful to the movie. So you probably know the story. Shrek is an ogre who was banished from his family when he was seven (in accordance with long-held ogre tradition, apparently); he eventually settled in a bleak remote swamp where he now resides alone. But suddenly his solitude is destroyed when a group of fairy tale characters are forcibly relocated to the swamp by Lord Farquaad, the half-dwarf tyrannical ruler of nearby Duloc. Farquaad has enacted laws prohibiting "freaks" like the three little pigs, Peter Pan, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Pinocchio from living in his country. Shrek wants these folks off his land asap, and of course they want to return to their homes. So they enlist Shrek, who is after all a big scary green ogre, to do battle with Farquaad, which he is happy to do.
On his way to Duloc, Shrek meets Donkey, a loquacious jackass (this is his species, not a pejorative). When they arrive in Duloc, Farquaad tells Shrek that he will remove the fairy creatures from the swamp if Shrek carries out a mission, namely the rescue of Farquaad's intended, Princess Fiona, from the dragon-protected tower where she has been hidden away. Shrek agrees and rescues Fiona. It's clear to us in the audience that Shrek and Fiona are made for each other. During the second act of the play, they eventually figure this out as well. A happy ending is never in doubt.
Steib's story, adapted here skillfully and wittily by librettist/lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori, mashes up dozens of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, yet it has an infectious freshness and a guileless naughty, juvenile streak that make it palatable to all ages. There is, for example, a song in Act II in which Shrek and Fiona try to outdo each other making increasingly loud rude noises (the polite term for what they're doing is "passing wind")—it would be vulgar or stupid if it weren't so ingenuously childlike. The littlest kids in the audience giggled delightedly, and the older folks were chortling right along with them.
Jason Moore's excellent direction has much to do with the entertainment quotient of the show—he keeps things moving along at a pace that's breezy but not breathless. This gives us the time we need to savor the best part of the show, which is Tim Hatley's endlessly creative design (he's credited with the costumes, sets, and puppets). Especially in the first act, the beautiful surprises parade onto the stage at a grand clip: wondrously inventive duds for the chorus of storybook characters who turn up in Shrek's swamp; a magical enchanted tower where Princess Fiona is imprisoned (and impersonated by three progressively older actresses, the last of whom, Sutton Foster, consequently receives the starry entrance that she deserves); a talking gingerbread cookie and a dragon puppet that dwarfs anything ever seen in any Disney musical. Hatley's work here is virtuosic and invaluable, setting a light, happy tone that pervades the entire show.
Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire's score is so filled with musical jokes that I know I missed some of them—among the popular musicals that come up for good-natured ribbing here are A Chorus Line, Rent, and The Little Mermaid. It's a tuneful, bouncy score that's entirely appropriate to the material, and Lindsay-Abaire's words are jokey and playful in the best cartoon tradition.
The cast is terrific, with the four leads all turning in fine performances. Brian d'Arcy James, though masked and padded as the oversized ogre Shrek, masterfully makes the role his own, especially when singing a couple of the show's earnest ballads (the high point for me was the Act One closer, "Who I'd Be"). As Donkey, Daniel Breaker is a hoot; he seems to be having the time of his life on stage, and the audience reacts in kind. Christopher Sieber is campily wicked as Farquaad, not least in an inspired scene that depicts him taking a bath. Foster is her bubbly, incandescent self in a role that feels tailor-made for her talents. Her performance of "I Know It's Today" with the two younger versions of Princess Fiona (Marissa O'Donnell and either Leah Greenhaus or Rachel Resheff) even manages to tug at the heartstrings a bit.
The supporting cast is loaded with strong character actors, including John Tartaglia as Pinocchio and the voice of Farquaad's Magic Mirror, Jennifer Simard as a Wicked Witch, and Chris Hoch as a Big Bad Wolf who likes Granny's nightgown a bit too well.
The show is not without its flaws: the second act slows down for long stretches that made the kids in the audience grow restless—a good 20 minutes or so could be pruned to make the piece into a fast, tight one-act show. The choreography is never as exciting as the rest of the production makes you hope for: the standout dance number, featuring Foster and a chorus line of oversized rats, is fun but actually slows the momentum of the story considerably.
But these are really quibbles. Shrek the Musical is very entertaining and, with its straightforward and clear moral about not judging others by their appearances, vastly more appropriate for young children than any other musical in town. It's a genuine holiday treat that, one hopes, will hang around for a lot longer than the holidays.