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On Tuesday night I brought my mom, a big fan of musical theater, to the Orpheum for the opening night of the weeklong run of Shrek the Musical. When the lights rose for intermission, she turned to me and said, "Well, it's good...but I think there's just too much singing."
It's true: 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.
Despite having written a doctoral dissertation on children's books and media, I've managed to go all ten years since the original Shrek film was released without seeing it or any of its sequels. I've often been told that I have to see it, usually by the kind of people who remind me of Marge Simpson telling her daughter Lisa that she should get a "Pobody's Nerfect" baseball cap. "It's clever, Lisa—just like you!"
So I was a Shrek virgin on Tuesday, and I learned that...yep! It's clever. 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 story, for those of you as unitiated as I was, is set in a meta-fairytale land where characters from all public-domain children's stories coexist. The peaceful existence of Shrek the ogre (Eric Petersen) is disrupted by the forced relocation of all non-human characters to the swamp of which he formerly had undisputed possession. (What is it with forced ethnicity-based relocation as a favorite go-to plot element in contemporary musical fantasies?) Reigning Lord Farquaad (David F.M. Vaughn) only agrees to force the rabble out of Shrek's swamp under the condition that the ogre retrieves the captive Princess Fiona (Haven Burton), which he does with the assistance of a donkey (Alan Mingo, Jr.) who befriends him. When sparks start to fly between Shrek and Fiona, it's revealed that Fiona has an interesting secret.
Shrek the Musical's tunes, by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the script), are R&B-flavored, and the juxtaposition of African-American idioms with these largely European folk characters is one of the musical's running jokes. The donkey was voiced by Eddie Murphy in the film (I know that much), and Mingo plays him as a pastiche of flamboyant R&B entertainers from Little Richard to Rick James. Unfortunately Tesori's flat songs give the cast's powerful voices little to work with. This lacuna is most noticeable in "Forever," a song meant to be a show-stopper for the dragon (Carrie Compere): with Compere singing offstage while a team of four puppeteers fly a giant dragon around the stage, the show wants so badly to be stopped that it actually does stop, but for the wrong reason.
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.
Scenic and costume designer Tim Hatley acquits himself adequately with the relatively simple sets, but clearly he was saving his energy for the costumes. Tom Horgen of the Star Tribune tweeted before the show that his 9-year-old niece said about Shrek, "His face better be green." That's testament to how important successful costumes are to this show, and Hatley succeeds marvelously. My mom said that Fiona looked like she'd walked straight out of the movie, and the crazy crew of fairytale characters who sing "Freak Flag" together as they rally a rebellion are outfitted in a brilliant array of outrageous outfits (check out the wooden-limb effect for Pinocchio) that we would give a right arm for on Freaky Deeky. I'm not sure whose right arm, but someone's.
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." Well, pobody's nerfect.