BWW Reviews: SHREK THE MUSICAL at the Arundel Barn Playhouse; New England Premiere Lets its Freak Flag Fly
Don't judge a book by its cover. Words to live by and the running theme of the DreamWorks franchise of animated films in the SHREK trilogy. Though DreamWorks have certainly had some films of note, they hit the big time in 2001 when they adapted William Steig's 1990 fairy tale picture book SHREK into a motion picture. With oodles of pop culture references, loveable characters and fairytale action, SHREK quickly won over the hearts of millions, and has become a family-friendly favorite. The movie struck a chord with adults as well, with witty "adult" comments that perhaps went over the heads of younger viewers.
The next step in DreamWorks plan was to turn these loveable characters into a real-life spectacle featuring actors donning green makeup, furry hooves and growing wooden noses. The Broadway production enjoyed a modest run from 2008 to 2010, and successful Equity and subsequent Non-Equity tours followed (for more information on Actor's Equity, the union representing professional performers at stage managers, please visit www.actorsequity.org). The show has now made the jump to regional theatres around the country, and the Arundel Barn Playhouse is the first theatre in all of New England to present it.
There are many challenges that face a theatre who chooses to mount such a difficult production. First and foremost are how to bring these iconic characters to life as realistically as possible, while still showcasing the actors underneath. Second is how to present the various locations presented in the piece (SHREK'S swamp, the castle in Duloc, Fiona's tower, etc) in a way that not only is appropriate, but can easily be changed to the next. It's a lot to undertake, but the Arundel Barn Playhouse rose to the occasion, and I think you will be quite surprised and delighted at the results.
All of your favorite characters from the movie appear in this stage adaptation, and then some. There are of course SHREK (Elliot Lane), Princess Fiona (Beatrice Crosbie), Donkey (Gavin Parmley), Lord Farquaad (Caleb Funk) and the Dragon (Deidra Grace). But also appearing are Pinocchio (Zack Steele), The Gingerbread Man (Virginia Hudak), Peter Pan (Andrea Wright), The Wicked Witch (Monet Julia Sabel) The Big Bad Wolf (Chris Cannon) and many, many more. Similar to the movie, the musical is not only full of these classic fairytale characters, but is filled with pop culture references. However, what sets it apart from the movie are the many love-letters to Broadway throughout. There are references to Les Miserables, Wicked, Dreamgirls, and Gypsy among many others.
Chris Rhoton's set in it's barest form evokes thoughts of the raw forest and swamps that encompass much of the story. It's on this canvas that he paints the rest of the scenery and utilizes the space in a way that ends up working splendidly. The set pieces are flat and storybook like, which fits the fairy-tale setting to a tee. Included in this is the ACTUAL storybook that greats the audience as they enter the theatre. Michael Biagys' lighting design is full of color; dark hues for the forest, bright oranges for the character's daytime journeys. And the use of a lit cyc at the back of the stage is one of sets' strongest features. Perhaps more important than the set in the case of SHREK are Luke D'Alessandro's costumes. The title character looks about as close to the "real" thing as you can possibly imagine. The costume only takes a back seat to the green makeup/prosthetic pieces that he wears. Similarly, Lord Farquaad's complicated and hilarious costume transforms the tallest man on stage into a very small person indeed.
Elliot Lane in the title role is a sight to behold. He has endeared himself to the Arundel audience in Andrews Brothers and Chicago, and he takes hold of this role with a firm grip. His gorgeous voice and loveable if misunderstood SHREK will keep you engaged throughout. His touching "When Words Fail" and "Who I'd Be" will tug at your heart strings, as will "Build A Wall". His eventual love interest Fiona (Beatrice Crosbie) looks about as much like the animated character as you can find in a real-life woman. Her sweet voice and spunky vivaciousness are a treat as she skips through "Morning Person", and "I Think I've Got You Beat".
Reaching new heights in furry friend comedy is the hilarious Gavin Parmley as Donkey. Never doing an Eddie Murphy impression, he makes this sassy "steed" his own. Whether it be munching on flowers when he thinks no one is looking, or his persistence in making a new friendship with Shrek, he will keep you laughing. And laughing. And laughing. A high point for Mr. Parmley is "Make A Move" featuring three adorably clad, cane wielding blind mice (Andrea Wright, Monet Julia Sabel and Phylicia Freeman). Diedra Grace lends her atom-bomb force vocals to the Dragon. The Dragon itself is a sight to behold, though sometimes awkward in execution; but she is belting to the rafters as she maneuvers it nevertheless. Not an easy task.
Caleb Funk's Lord Farquaad is the foppish, snide little man he needs to be. You laugh over and over at the man you are clearly supposed to hate. Not least because he performs the entire show on his knees; kudos, my friend. I hope you have some very supportive knee pads. "What's Up Duloc?" will have you rolling as you watch this mini-man frolic about the stage singing his heart out, and backed up by hilariously attired Duloc-ites. Speaking of which, some standout performances among the ensemble are Zack Steele's Pinocchio, Monet Julia Sabel's Wicked Witch and Virginia Hudak as the Gingerbread Man. "Freak Flag" is a particularly strong number for these ensemble members as well as Chris Cannon, Phylicia Freeman, Kelli-Ann Paterwic, and Andrea Wright.
One of the more important and impressive features of this production are the Vinegar Hill Youth Theatre Acting Apprentices: Elizabeth Elkington (Teen Fiona), Sophia Hines (Young Fiona and ADORABLE as all 3 Little Pigs), Linda Line (Sugar Plum Fairy), Calvin Poissant (Mad Hatter), Devin Sparks (Guard) and Matthew Taggart (Young SHREK). The art form of theatre is dependent on a younger generation to carry it on, and these young performers are well on their way to becoming artists in their own right. The entire ensemble, including the younger members of the company, play multiple roles aside from the ones I have listed. It's a hard job, but each and every member of the ensemble does their part to take on these challenging roles.
If you are looking to laugh heartily at some beloved characters, and a family-friendly evening (without feeling like you are at a show meant just for kids), look no further than SHREK THE MUSICAL at the Arundel Barn Playhouse. Please visit www.arundelbarnplayhouse.com for tickets and more information.