Ogre the Top

12. December, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #122: Shrek the Musical, SHN, December 1.

David F.M. Vaughn and Keven Quillon in Shrek the Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Sam Hurwitt

It’s funny that no sooner does Wicked end its long run at the Orpheum Theatre than another green-skinned fairy-tale antihero comes calling. No, not the Incredible Hulk. This time it’s Shrek, the curmudgeonly ogre created by William Steig in his 1990 book Shrek! People know him best, of course, through the hit series of DreamWorks animated films starring Mike Myers, and the stage musical now visiting San Francisco through SHN’s Best of Broadway season is faithfully based on the first of that franchise, 2001’s Shrek.

Just as that movie provided an opportunity for numerous potshots at rival animation giant Disney, 2008’s Shrek the Musical became the inaugural attempt of DreamWorks Theatricals to replicate the success of Disney’s stage adaptations. It was reportedly the most expensive musical ever on Broadway until Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark came along, dwarfing Shrek‘s $25 million with its $65 million price tag. Shrek ran for a year on Broadway, closing in January 2010 before launching a revamped version on tour this summer.

Though it appears to have taken a great deal of tinkering before, during and after its New York run, Shrek strikes a winning balance between fealty to the film and Broadway glitz. in fact, in a lot of ways I was more satisfied with it than with the much bigger hit Monty Python’s Spamalot. Although many of the best gags are straight from the movie (such as the interrogation of the Gingerbread Man), Shrek doesn’t rely as much on the beloved old jokes of its source material as does Spamalot–or, for that matter, Young Frankenstein.  (Although to be fair, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is much harder source material to top, and has a more fanatical following, than anything in Shrek.)

Although not necessarily memorable, the songs by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Fuddy Meers) and composer Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change; Thoroughly Modern Millie) are often delightful pastiches replete with sly references to other hit musicals (Les Miz, A Chorus Line, The Lion King) and familiar R&B riffs you can’t quite put your finger on. Tim Hatley’s fanciful sets and faithful costumes nicely capture the animated world of the DreamWorks picture. (The one Tony Award the show won was for Hatley’s costume design.)

The story is pretty much straight from the movie: Reviled by the world, the ogre Shrek lives a lonely existence in a swamp, chasing away anyone who happens to stay there, until a bunch of annoying fairy-tale creatures show up there: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, the Three Bears and Three Little Pigs, even our old friend the Wicked Witch. They’ve been driven out of the Kingdom of Duloc by the dwarfish, meticulous Lord Farquaad, who wants a magic kingdom of perfect uniformity with no more freaks. (There’s even an obvious homage to “It’s a Small World” to drive the point home.)

To get these people out of his swamp, Shrek goes to give Farquaad a talking-to, only to get sent on a quest to retrieve the captive Princess Fiona, held in a tower by a dragon, and bring her back to Farquaad so he can marry her and be king.  Of course Shrek, who just wants to be left alone, winds up with an unwanted sidekick in a chatty donkey and soon develops feelings for Fiona.

The musical doesn’t get sidetracked by trying to cram in content from the numerous sequels, which is especially fortunate because even with just the one story, some scenes feel rushed is to make room for the songs.  Shrek is convinced to go on his quest for Pinocchio and company awfully quickly, for instance.

Directed by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford, it’s a lively production with a mostly strong cast featuring Broadway understudies in the lead roles of Shrek, Fiona and Lord Farquaad. Alan Mingo Jr. is a charming, hyperactive presence as Donkey, remaining true to Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of the character without doing too much of a Murphy impersonation himself. Haven Burton is marvelous as Princess Fiona, with a bright, chirpy voice and a tremendous presence that serves her well as the alarmingly chipper romantic whose insistence on everything being fairy-tale perfect borders on scarily obsessive.  Her introduction is particularly poignant, as Fiona grows from childhood to adulthood in a single song (with Madison Mullahey and Sarah Peak embodying her younger selves), always sure that today’s the day her handsome knight will come rescue her.

But the best thing about the production is David F.M. Vaughn as the imperious, snooty, and extremely short Lord Farquaad, who beautifully combines bitchy unwarranted arrogance and deft comic timing. The gag that he’s obviously being played by a guy on his knees with little puppet legs never stops being funny, because there are enough variations on the theme to keep the joke fresh.

The weakest link is Eric Petersen’s bland performance as Shrek himself.  Granted, Shrek can be a low-key sad sack much of the time, but Petersen is limp at the best of times. It’s hard to get across much nuance in the heavy makeup he has to wear (which is about as convincing as a well-made Halloween costume), but he doesn’t make up for it with body language or strong line delivery either.  Plus, the Scottish brogue borrowed from Myers’s portrayal constricts and muffles what otherwise might be a pleasant singing voice.

It doesn’t help that Shrek gets all the most mawkish songs, which are still the ones chosen to end both acts. The curtain call ends with a so-so version of the Monkees’s “I’m a Believer” (written by Neil Diamond), which Donkey sang in the movie.

Although they don’t do much but share an occasional mob scene, the fairytale gang led by Blakely Slaybaugh’s squeaky-voiced Pinocchio gets a couple of cute song-and-dance numbers choreographed by Josh Prince, “Story of My Life” and “Freak Flag.” Fiona’s big cavorting number “Morning Person” is hilarious, including a line of tap-dancing rats, although her poor-me duet with Shrek, “I Think I Got You Beat,” is a bit lackluster. As the voice of the giant puppet Dragon that keeps Fiona prisoner, Carrie Compere’s R&B barn-burner “Forever,” original to the touring version, is such a knockout that it’s a shame that Act I ends a couple songs later with Shrek’s sappy “Who I’d Be.”

It’s a very mixed bag–there are way too many fart jokes (though you couldn’t say that’s in any way untrue to the Myers oeuvre), and some of the songs that aim to be stirring are cloying instead. It would help to know the movie well to really get what happens to the bad guy in the end, because it’s a rare moment when the visuals fall a little short. But in a steady stream of musicals based on pretty much any movie the producers think they might be able to make a buck off of, this one is a much more solid and enjoyable endeavor than anyone might have expected something called Shrek the Musical to be.

Shrek the Musical plays through January 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. http://shnsf.com

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