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BWW Reviews: OC's 3-D Theatricals Amps Up the Funny in SHREK - THE MUSICAL

Leave it to the ultra-talented, über-enthusiastic folks at 3-D Theatricals to take an okay-ha-ha show and turn it into an OMFG-that-was-super-hella-funny triumph of whimsy and heart. In its glorious, colorful presentation of the Southern California regional premiere of SHREK - THE MUSICAL, 3-D Theatricals---fast becoming Orange County's home for Broadway-caliber shows---certainly has plenty to celebrate in its latest offering. The family-friendly musical comedy continues its limited engagement at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through August 4 then transfers north to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center for a weekend of shows August 9-11.

Based on the hit 2001 Academy Award-winning DreamWorks animated film---which is itself an adaptation of William Steig's cheeky 1990 novel of the same name---SHREK is a modern-day, pop-culture-tinged re-examination of your typical, traditional fairy tale, in which both the hero and the princess-in-distress aren't whom you'd normally expect them to be. Much like the first film in the successful animated movie franchise, the story of the stage adaptation follows the accidental adventure of a green ogre named Shrek (played by 3-D Theatricals' own co-founder and artistic director TJ Dawson), who at the ripe age of seven is forcibly ousted from his home by his similarly green-hued parents who tell him that, well, his hideous outward appearance (which they too have been born with) that's punctuated by a horrendous natural odor will no doubt doom him to a life of misery and loneliness. Yikes. Harsh.

At the same time in another part of this far away land, a kind of similar circumstance has been handed to a young princess named Fiona (played as an adult by Melissa WolfKlain). For reasons unclear until later in the plot, Fiona is forced by her parents to live her formative years locked up in a tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and is told to wait patiently for a brave knight to rescue her. Sounds neat and romantic, if not for the waiting... and the waiting... and, my lord, the waiting...

Back in the forest, the young banished ogre wanders aimlessly---scaring villagers along the way---until he eventually settles into a comfortable, undisturbed life within a secluded yucky swamp he can claim as his own. Content there to be truly himself (and be by himself), he very much enjoys his mud baths, skunk-spray cologne, and complete isolation from the judgmental views of the outside world. Well, that is, until his swamp is invaded by an influx of mythical creature refugees, all of whom have been banished from their homes within the kingdom of Duloc, which is ruled by the amusingly short-statured Lord Farquaad (the incredible David F.M. Vaughn, who also directed the production), an evil, maniacal ruler with a penchant for childish hissy fits and a hatred for all fairy tale creatures.

Annoyed by his uninvited guests, the ogre learns from their high-pitched, perpetually lying spokes-creature Pinocchio (the very funny Daniel Dawson, another 3DT co-founder), that Farquaad has ordered all "freaks" be relocated to Shrek's spot of land. This, of course, doesn't sit well with Shrek, so he decides---after much prodding from the invaders---to set off for Duloc to confront Farquaad and demand for the rightful restoration of his private oasis.

And what reluctant quest doesn't include running into---and inadvertently saving the life of---an on-the-run talkative Donkey (the delightful Brandon Armstrong)? The ornery Shrek, of course, quickly regrets rescuing the chatty four-legged creature from the clutches of Farquaad's army, because, sure enough, the Donkey invites himself to be Shrek's travel buddy and, yup, best friend. Hee hee.

Meanwhile at Duloc, Farquaad successfully interrogates Gingy, the gumdrop-buttoned gingerbread man (voiced and puppetteered by Alex Ellis), to reveal that in order for Farquaad to ascend to the throne of a king, he must rescue and marry a princess first. And, well... lookee here! There just happens to be a princess locked away at a tower just waiting to be rescued! But rightly so, Farquaard predicts that the task would just be too messy for someone as delicate as him to engage.

So, naturally, when the Hulk-like Shrek shows up at Duloc, Farquaad hatches an irresistable deal with him: In exchange for the deed to his swamp home, Shrek must rescue Princess Fiona from the tower and then escort her back to Duloc to be Farquaad's wife. Desperate to get his muddy nook back, Shrek agrees to the terms and---with Donkey tagging along as his "guide"---makes the harrowing trek to rescue the Princess.

As soon as the unlikely pair penetrate the lava-encircled fortress, Donkey is surprised to discover that the fire-breathing dragon guarding the castle is a soul-belting lady dragon (voiced off-stage by Amber J. Snead)---who, funny enough, has the, um, hots for Donkey! Awkward! For her part, the excitable yet long-suffering Fiona is surprised at how unrefined and unromantic her rescuer is---mostly because the rude and impetuous Shrek (disguised at first in head-to-toe fireproof armor) doesn't quite live up to the gallant heroes described in all the fantasy storybooks she's read during her entrapment in the tower all of these years. Later, when she finally discovers that her rescuer is a big smelly green-skinned ogre under all that armor---and, worse, was sent by proxy to retrieve her---she is even more disappointed.

Of course, like most stories that feature two people bickering initially with such vibrant fervor, their relationship soon gives way to feelings of... well, I think everyone can see where this is headed. But unlike most stories in the fairy tale genre, SHREK has a way of skewing expectations a bit; so in this world, even the beautiful, enchanting Princess herself has a secret that could actually be the bigger detriment to everyone's ultimate happy ending.

Filled with hilarious sight-gags, colorful, over-the-top characters, and a snarky, self-aware attitude, SHREK - THE MUSICAL is, overall, a genuinely entertaining show that's great, silly fun for young and old alike. Though past productions I have seen of SHREK have never truly wowed me (including the most recent non-Equity national tour that rolled into Orange County a few years ago), seeing 3-D Theatricals' buoyant new production gives me an entirely new appreciation for the show's madcap antics, adorkable songs, and witty one-liners.

While, sure, 3-DT's production---which feature sets by Tom Buderwitz, costumes by Kate Bergh, prosthetics by Mike Marino, choreography by Justin Greer, and musical direction by Julie Lamoureux---looks fairly similar to previous iterations of the stage musical (particularly NETworks' recent tour), the amped-up attitude beaming from this production feels so much more palpable. Even more so than ever before, the show's winking, cleverly-placed homages to a few iconic Broadway musicals feel a lot more purposely funny here (look out for amusing nods to everything from WICKED and A CHORUS LINE to DREAMGIRLS and LES MISERABLES, among others). By the time the show pushes towards intermission, you feel like you've been basking in infectious theatrical glee.

Though I still feel that the periphery characters need to break out of their one-note archetypes, the show itself as a whole feels more lively under 3-DT's showmanship hands. Their version of SHREK, by the way, now marks the second time in a row that 3-DT has managed to mount a show I previously didn't care too much for into something I now really, greatly love (in case you were curious, that other show they remade better was their deeply moving top-notch recreation of the musical PARADE).

A lot of this, perhaps, can be attributed to the show's enjoyable ensemble cast---led by TJ Dawson and the show's very own director Vaughn---who each commit wholeheartedly to their characters with such joyous intensity and off-the-charts silliness---whether big or small. As the big green ogre who, turns out, is just a giant teddy bear, Dawson literally disappears into his titular character, and, damn this guy can sing! With the help of excellent make-up and prosthetics, his physical transformation is aided by Dawson's hearty approach to the character. Though he's essentially the straight guy in contrast to all the silly ones around him, he still does it with a fart and a smirk.

Speaking of silly ones, the cast is populated with plenty of thespian hams, each of whom look as if they're all seeking to out-ham the other. Amongst the cast worth noting include the super-funny, super-talented Vaughn as the petulantly posh, vertically-challenged Farquaad. Insanely over-the-top in a deliciously giddy way, Vaughn---thanks partly to the role itself and the gut-busting "stage magic" required to play him---very easily and very often steals the show (rightly so, considering he's stepped into the role many times before both on Broadway and on the National Tour).

Vaughn, who also dons the director's hat for this production, successfully highlights mirthful performances from his fellow cast-mates as well. As Donkey, Shrek's fast-jiving sidekick, Armstrong easily wins over the audience with his street-smart-flavored comic delivery and crackerjack one-liners. And as I noted in my review of the national tour company's production, I truly adore this new, sassier evolution for the character from its film origins---one that seems a lot more, uh, effete than previously presented, but not so much that it plunges into an offensive stereotype.

As Fiona, Wolfklain---equipped with a lovely singing voice---makes for a pretty princess that can kick ass, too. Though she sometimes gets out-laughed by her funnier co-stars, she manages to hold her own among the showier guys. And an extra special shout-out goes out to the other Dawson in the main cast, Daniel, for bringing this cantankerous vision of Pinocchio to life (plus, the guy earns everyone's "the show must go on" kudos for continuing through despite the technical malfunction of his supposed-to-grow liar's nose on Opening night; here's hoping extra batteries were on hand for it on subsequent performances).

Without question, those who loved the film will truly love seeing this show re-imagined on stage---particularly since the stage musical itself has turned the dial up on all the inside jokes and sight gags that made movie-going audiences fall in love with it in the first place. Songs like "What's Up, Duloc?" and the pro-misfits anthem "Freak Flag"---written by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist David Lindsay Abaire---will have you rushing out to grab the original Broadway soundtrack, while the little ones---and perhaps you grown-ups too---will get a kick out of Shrek and Fiona's second act flatulence war (nope, that's not a typo) that, funny enough, draws them ever closer together in love. Get it, gurrrll.

The one notable omission though is the Magic Mirror---a prominent figure featured in the film and in the Broadway production---but, alas, at this point, its absence feels inconsequential. On the positive end, I really liked that the dragon from the film can now speak---and, yes, saaaang---portrayed on-stage by a trio of puppeteers and voiced by the ever-divalicious Snead (who, thankfully, emerges for bows in her human form at the finale).

All in all, another fun, excellent show from the folks at 3-D Theatricals. I'm a believer, indeed.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos of 3-D Theatricals' presentation of SHREK - THE MUSICAL by Isaac James Creative. From top to bottom, previous page: Shrek (TJ Dawson) gets invaded by magical refugees; Lord Farquaad (David F.M. Vaughn) delights in torturing Gingy. From top to bottom, this page: Princess Fiona (Melissa WolfKlain) is exited to meet her fairy tale love; Donkey (Brandon Armstrong) braves molten lava.

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Performances of 3-D Theatricals' SHREK - THE MUSICAL continue at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through August 4, 2013 then at The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center from August 9-11, 2013. Shows are scheduled Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm.

For tickets or more information, call 714-589-2770 or visit www.3DTshows.com.


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From This Author Michael L. Quintos