BWW Reviews: Silly Fun Rules SHREK The Musical

Once in a while, we sometimes find ourselves afforded the privilege of sitting through a stage musical that's full of deep, emotionally-affecting themes and meaningful messages that we take home and, perhaps, apply to our own lives. SHREK THE MUSICAL isn't one of those—which, really, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Like a warm Snuggie on a cold winter night or a decadent dessert to a calorie counter, sometimes we all just want to cater to our own basest pleasure centers that simply crave comforting, entertaining shows full of good ol' plain, silly fun. This same idea explains why macaroni and cheese makes for a great combo... why the excitingly mindless "Summer Movie" was invented... and why SHREK THE MUSICAL made me laugh for most of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Now playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through October 16, this amusing, big-kid-friendly live-action cartoon musical delivers the laughs not with beguiling snark but, rather, with fart battles, cheeky sight gags, and a sassy attitude that intermittently seeks to distract you from its flaws.

Based on the popular 2001 Academy Award-winning DreamWorks animated movie—which itself is an adaptation of William Steig's well-liked 1990 book of the same name—SHREK THE MUSICAL is a modernized re-examination of the traditional fairy tale. It follows the story of a green ogre named Shrek (Lukas Poost), who at the ripe age of seven is forcibly ousted from his home by his callous, similarly green-hued parents. They tell the young boy that he's pretty much doomed to a life of misery and loneliness, thanks primarily to his hideous outward appearance that's punctuated by a horrendous odor that will no doubt scare everyone around him. Wandering alone, he eventually settles into a comfortable, undisturbed life within a swamp he claims as his own, where he enjoys mud-and-skunk-spray baths and total isolation from the judgmental outside world.

His solitude, however, is soon squelched, thanks to the unwanted squatting of the kingdom's many mythical creatures—now relocated refugees via a decree enacted by the hilariously short-statured Lord Farquaad (the awesome Merritt David Janes), the evil ruler of Duloc. According to the displaced creatures' high-pitched, perpetually lying spokesperson Pinocchio (O.C. native Luke Yellin), Farquaad has ordered all "freaks" be removed from Duloc, only to be subsequently dumped in Shrek's spot of land. Understandably miffed, the ogre sets off for Duloc to confront Farquaad and demand for the restoration of his private oasis. Along his journey, he inadvertently saves the life of a very talkative Donkey (André Jordan) from the hands of Farquaad's army—an act he soon regrets as the Donkey annoyingly follows him everywhere, claiming Shrek is now his best friend. Adorable.

Meanwhile at Duloc, Farquaad successfully interrogates Gingy, the gingerbread man (voiced by Schuyler Midgett), to admit that in order for Farquaad to ascend to the throne of a king, he must marry a princess first. Well, whaddya know! One such princess just happens to be locked away high atop a dragon-guarded tower, awaiting rescue. Though the task, Farquaard predicts, could get messy. Upon Shrek's arrival at Duloc (where they are greeted by a group of toy soldiers that sing "Welcome to Duloc," a song swiped directly from the film), Farquaad hatches a deal with him: In exchange for the deed to his swamp home, Shrek must first retrieve Princess Fiona from the tower and return her to Duloc to be Farquaad's wife. Shrek agrees to the terms and, with Donkey as his "guide," makes the harrowing trek to the lava-encircled tower to rescue the Princess.

Once the pair penetrates the fortress, Donkey discovers a soul-singing dragon (voiced off-stage by Kelly Teal Goyette) who quickly falls madly in love with him. High above, Shrek is able to scale the tower to find an excitable yet long-suffering Princess Fiona (Liz Shivener), who has been locked up here alone with nothing but storybooks that have filled her head with outlandish fantasies since she was seven years old. After a daring escape, the three set off on a journey back to Duloc. Fiona's initial disappointment that her rescuer is an ornery ogre rather than the expecTed Knight in shining armor soon gives way to, perhaps, feelings of... well, I think you know where it's headed. But what you may not know—especially if you're new to the world of Shrek—is that her own dark, post-Sunset secret could be the biggest detriment to their budding relationship... well, aside from power-mad Farquaad being a crazy, dictatorial cry-baby hell-bent on marrying her to get a crown.

A funneled hodgepodge of funny bits, colorful characters, and cute but not entirely memorable songs, SHREK THE MUSICAL is just entertaining enough, achieving hearty, genuine laughs but rarely crests to anything more substantive beyond its shiny surface. Characters feel like caricature archetypes rather than fully-fleshed out beings, though Farquaad here feels more thought out than the rest. It certainly raises the amount of pop-cultural wit from the original film, most notably its knowing additions of a few cleverly-placed homages to certain iconic Broadway musicals (look out for nods to everything from WICKED and A CHORUS LINE to DREAMGIRLS and LES MISÉRABLES, among others). But for a musical based on a magical fairy tale story, I don't believe enough of that magic made it on to the stage.

Aside from the many significant content and logistic changes that have been implemented to this iteration from its original Broadway run—which include a new opening, replaced/excised characters, tweaked arrangements, and a new song ("Forever") sung by a now-puppeteeRed Dragon—understandably, this scaled-down, NETworks-mounted, non-Equity second national tour (which officially began just last month in Portland) incorporates thriftier sets that are, I'm afraid, a tad disappointing.

While the sight of dropped scenery flats are nothing new, here I found them too flat... serviceable, yes, but too community theater-esque to really wow you into this fairy tale setting (I have to say, though, that they're quite an improvement from the sets utilized in the last non-Disney-backed tour of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). Though, it is sometimes a distraction—especially a backdrop of a stained-glass church window that, on opening night, kept flapping in the wind, signaling that a hole will magically appear there later on—thankfully, I was laughing way too much to make it a complete deal breaker.

For brevity, technical, and, perhaps, for economy's sake, the Magic Mirror—a prominent figure featured in the film—as well as other magical characters have been axed from the Broadway version. Also, part of me still wishes that "More To The Story," a gorgeous song cut from the show after its pre-Broadway tryout would have made it back into the tour. Such alterations, of course, are often de rigueur for tour translations, but it makes me wonder what I'm missing here, and whether or not having these changes would have greatly elevated my overall experience with the show. Now I'm curious. If you caught the show this past summer at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood—which marked the final stop of the first national tour—was it significantly better?

The one thing I'm sure of, though, is that this touring SHREK THE MUSICAL is populated with plenty of really, really good talent. As the title character, newcomer Poost does an excellent job singing, dancing, and acting as the shlubby green ogre, channelling a similar brogue that Mike Myers evokes as the voice artist in the film, while still letting his character come through winningly under layers of transformative makeup. I absolutely adore the surprisingly funny and beautifully-voiced Shivener, who as Fiona is wonderfully spunky here, and plays off Poost very well. I love her so much more in this role than when she appeared on this very same stage as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

As Donkey, Shrek's speed-talking sidekick, Jordan is super funny. Though I don't remember the character being quite so, uh, effete, I thoroughly enjoyed his sassy, Bon Qui Qui-flavored take on the role. And, finally, as the evil, vertically-challenged Farquaad, Janes is the show's true ham and MVP. Though the character is often perilously in danger of becoming just a running joke, Janes keeps every appearance lively, toggling between over-the-top and deliciously giddy. By virtue of the role and the mechanics required to play it, he often and very easily steals the show—though I wish the director didn't have to cut short his final Elphaba shriek at the end of "What's Up, Duloc?" and let the joke resonate a bit longer.

Overall, SHREK THE MUSICAL is enjoyable for what it is: a silly, harmlessly fun show that's admirably entertaining. There are plenty of amusing jokes and hilarious sight gags to keep you invested, at least enough during the show's duration. Though I'm shocked that, given the previous stellar work of composer Jeanine Tesori, only a few songs are memorable (that would be "What's Up, Duloc?" and the misfit anthem "Freak Flag"), the music, much like the show itself, is certainly interesting as it unfurls before your eyes. Though it may all go down as delicious in the moment, in the end, it all amounts to just tasty, empty calories.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos by Joan Marcus. From top to bottom: Shrek (Lukas Poost) strikes a pose; Shrek, Donkey (André Jordan) and Fiona (Liz Shivener) go camping; Lord Farquaad (Merritt David Janes) interrogates Gingy; Princess Fiona is holding out for a hero.

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Performances of the 2nd National Tour of SHREK THE MUSICAL at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through October 16, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. The 2 pm performance on Saturday, October 15 will be sign-language interpreted.

The NETworks Presentations, LLC production of SHREK THE MUSICAL is directed by Stephen Sposito with Josh Prince's choreography recreated by Chris Bailey and Tour Scenic Designs by Jim Kronzer based on the work of Tim Hatley. The show features book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the Broadway production co-directed by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford.

Ticket prices start at $20 and can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For more information, please visit SCFTA.org.

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From This Author Michael L. Quintos

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