BWW Review: A Big Bright Beautiful SHREK: THE MUSICAL at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre
SHREK: THE MUSICAL is certainly beloved, but did you know it's also quite subversive? And not just due to the fart jokes either. And not just because it's pock-marked with various allusions to great musicals--A Chorus Line, Gypsy, 42nd Street, Wicked, Les Miserables and The Lion King? SHREK: THE MUSICAL stands as a monument of inclusion, of being yourself, of championing individuality and liberation. It takes Polonius' famous line--"To thine own self be true"--and runs with it for two and a half hours. It's a rainbow flag bumper sticker brought to life by a motley crew of outside agitators, or in this case, Fairy Tale characters. And yet, Disney-esque as it may seem, it has more to say about hot button issues than several more serious shows. There's even a sly reference to the Queer Nation pride chant thrown in for good measure: "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" In SHREK: THE MUSICAL, the line is twisted around and uttered by the out-spoken Pinocchio: "We're wood! We're good! Get used to it!"
Based on both the 1990 picture book by William Steig and the 2001 Michael Myers hit film, SHREK: THE MUSICAL has been around for a decade now and has firmly planted its freak flag in the sand of musical theaters across the country. With book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, this anti-conformist ode, this plea for acceptance for the outsiders of the world, is now ironically considered a standard, the ultimate insider; Shrek the character may not get acceptance at first, but the musical certainly does. For a while there, it was the #1 show produced by middle and high schools in the country. It's #6 this year, far behind the current #1 high school champion, Beauty and the Beast.
SHREK: THE MUSICAL actually shares something with its thematic cousin, The Addams Family: The Musical; they are imperfect beasts that are seemingly performed everywhere despite being way too long for their own good (about three songs too many). Still, when a professional theatre group decides to produce SHREK, you jump at the chance to see it done right because its glories triumphantly emerge amid its imperfections. And that's currently the case with the endearing version being performed until July 28th at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson (Broadway on the Gulf).
The name Shrek comes from the German word "schreck," which means fear, so a talented larger-than-life soul must fill the role of this iconic green ogre that causes fear in so many others but remains likable. Thank God for Jason Sofge in the title role of this production. He looks like a giant onstage and talks like an old school smart-aleck: George Costanza as played by John Goodman. His make-up and Shrek mask work quite well, though I wish his wrists were painted green to match his large (rubber) green hands. He belts fantastically well, especially in the Act 1 closer, "Who'd I Be."
As his sidekick, Donkey, the entertaining Tezz Yancey is surely a jolt of adrenaline. But the non-musical scenes between him and Sofge's Shrek seemed to miss (timing was off); there were too many Pinter-like pauses in a show that should be bam-bam-bam whenever Donkey is onstage. You could almost hear crickets in some of those unnecessary pauses (and please don't pause awaiting audience laughter that may not be there). Sometimes it was difficult to understand Donkey, but his electric "Make a Move" was certainly a standout where he gets to show off his stunning dance moves.
Julia Rifino proves once again why she is one of the strongest talents to emerge from our area. Her Fiona is outstanding. (Actually there are three Fiona's as seen in the song "I Know It's Today"--the adorable Jayden Garner, who doubles as Baby Bear and Grumpy, and the vocal powerhouse Delany Garcia as the Teen Fiona.) But Rifino is in top form vocally and she stood out as the best in the entire cast. There's a moment where she gets to strut her singing voice during the marvelous "Morning Person"; she hits a note so high I thought my water glass might break. It was such a stellar moment that she could use this as an audition for Christine from Phantom of the Opera.
Shrek and Fiona get their own one-upmanship number with "I Think I Got You Beat" in Act 2. It's a takeoff of "Anything You Can Do," but with a flatulence battle instead of a singing one. This number is key because both leads connect here, and we see their growing love for one another as they burp and fart up a storm.
Nick Manna is deliciously evil as the height-challenged Lord Farquaad. Although he's not as Dr. Evil eely as we may wish in the villain, he's a hoot. He also sports tremendous vocals as shown in his two big numbers--"What's Up, Duloc?" and "The Ballad of Farquaad."
As the dreaded dragon, assistant Musical Director Miggie Snyder emerges as the show's very best (tied with Rifino). Her vocals are stellar, and she rocked the house in her best Gwen Stefani fashion. Her singing can thrill you like, say, Ann Wilson of Heart, and I would love to see her in a rock musical (The Who's Tommy or even a female Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar).
The large dragon puppet itself that mouthed Snyder's vocals was quite an imposing sight. Looking like something between Serendipity the Pink Dragon and the Shreya plush, it almost filled the Show Palace stage, taking several puppeteers to come alive. No, it's not quite Broadway's King Kong in the eye-popping puppet department, but it certainly made its commanding presence known.
The SHREK ensemble, each mostly playing Fairy Tale characters, is a dream. In their party-fun paws, "Freak Flag" sounded freakishly fabulous. Emily Bainbridge makes for a fun Fairy Godmother, while Trenton Bainbridge is fine as the Big Bad Wolf. Timothe Bittle is a perfect Papa Bear, while Amy Dollar becomes a serviceable Wicked Witch. Erin Knowles is a cute Ugly Duckling, and the multi-talented Ryon Eberhard shines in his numerous roles. Jaylon Jazz McCraven and Jenna McWilliams are quite strong as, respectively, the Pig and the Gingerbread Man. Although Tyler Baxter is an energetic Pinocchio, I could barely understand a single word he shrieked.
My award for Best Ensemble member goes to Delany Garcia as Peter Pan; she's so incredible that I almost want the Show Palace to produce Peter Pan (never a favorite) just to be able to watch the wondrous Ms. Garcia in the lead.
Special mention must be made regarding Caleb Schantz. He was wonderful in his variety of parts, but he was also our waiter for the night. Although it was his first time waiting tables there, he was a pro, the best waiter I've ever had in my many ventures to the Show Palace Dinner Theatre. He was attentive without being intrusive; personable without being self-centered; funny without being obnoxious. Other waiters from any restaurant establishments (Olive Garden? Chili's?) need to shadow him to see how it's done.
Well-directed by Kurt Terrio and strikingly choreographed by Casey Hicks, SHREK has everything...including....drum roll, please...A LIVE ORCHESTRA. I'm so used to canned music at the establishment that it's heartening that the successful new owners are vying for a live band (musical direction is by Steven Sensenig). Nothing beats the immediacy, the verve, that a live orchestra brings, and I'm so happy that it has been brought back, sounding wonderful.
On the tech side of things, Mark Haniuk's set design worked fine throughout, and Taylor Marrs' costumes were for the most part creative (although I hated the Humpty Dumpty attire, which seemed more suited for a middle school cafetorium production).
In the deficit department, Donkey and Shrek's "Traveling Song" left much to be desired, mostly in the uninventive staging. The show seemed long with some severe pacing issues. There were also some major tech problems during the performance I witnessed. At one point, the lights went out, out of nowhere, just zapped off like we were suddenly thrust into the song "Blackout" from In the Heights. The good news is that the cast carried on without a hitch until the problem was fixed (first with the help of spotlights, then when the proper lights came back on).
The meal beforehand was rather tasty. The chicken and waffles were passable at best (what is SHREK without some waffles?) and the Chef Carved Roast Beef mouthwateringly delicious, especially smothered in au jus, but word from some reliable sources is that the Baked Atlantic White Fish was so out-of-this-world yummy that I think it's got them both beat.
SHREK: THE MUSICAL at the Show Palace is the perfect remedy for your summertime blues. It may be subversive underneath it all, and it may be imperfect, but it comes across as a party show, just right for the kids who need a nice meal, some air-conditioning, and the telling of the tender tale of a giant farting ogre. As for the adults, who knows, maybe you'll have so much fun--with the help of some specialty cocktails like the Puttin' on the Ritz or the Show Stopper--that you'll find yourself dancing in the aisles with the cast to the tune of "I'm a Believer." When it comes to the magic spell of summertime musicals, anything is possible in this big bright beautiful world.