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Review: Arts in Motion Presents an Adorable SHREK THE MUSICAL at the PHSC Instructional Performing Arts Center in Wesley Chapel

It's a blast!

Review: Arts in Motion Presents an Adorable SHREK THE MUSICAL at the PHSC Instructional Performing Arts Center in Wesley Chapel

I can always tell when a director of young people has confidence in his or her cast: They ask me to review their show. That was certainly the case with Mitchell Gonzalez, the talented director who specializes in shows featuring youthful performers. I've seen various productions that he tackled in the pre-pandemic days, including the ballsy 13: The Musical and the eyebrow-raising cult hit, Carrie. So when he asked me to review his latest show--knowing that I am both fair and, most important of all, honest--I had to say a resounding yes.

I'm glad I did.

Mr. Gonzalez's latest endeavor, Arts in Motion's SHREK THE MUSICAL, is secretly subversive. And not just because it's pock-marked with various allusions to great shows of the past--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.

Based on both the 1990 picture book by William Steig and the 2001 Michael Myers hit film, SHREK: THE MUSICAL has been around for over a decade now and has firmly planted its freak flag on stages 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 the ultimate insider, one of the most watched shows being performed by schools in the nation (although it's recently fallen off the Top-10 list of the Most Popular Musicals for High Schools).

The Arts in Motion (Community Youth Theater Arts Education, Inc.) production, performed in the big bright beautiful world of the new PHSC Instructional Performing Arts Center in Wesley Chapel, is a blast. There are certainly some issues with the production, which I will get to, but in the end, who cares? It's such a fun show, and seeing these kids reach their highest heights is a thrilling sight to behold. How many lives have been changed due to their involvement with this show, with the arts? Trust me, if you feel overwhelmed by so much depressing news on TV, then you owe it to yourselves to see this SHREK, to see these young people doing what they love and doing it well. Their joy of performing is infectious; it will give you a jolt of hope.

If you're reading this, you probably know the plot of SHREK. If not, this is the story in a nutshell: Swampy Ogre meets girl; Ogre falls for girl; (SPOILER ALERT) girl is actually an Ogre at night; things happen like the slaying of a dragon, a Fairy Tale revolt, and a wedding between a princely baddie and the girl Ogre; and in the end, will the Ogre and his soul mate get together and live happily ever after? That's about it. But SHREK THE MUSICAL, as I mentioned before, is so much more.

The Arts in Motion cast is enormous (listing all the names would be like listing names in a phone book), and there are two separate casts to enjoy: The Duloc Cast (Friday night/May 27 and Saturday afternoon at 2:00/May 28) and the Swamp Cast (Thursday night and Saturday night at 7:00/May 28). I had the honor of watching Thursday night's Swamp Cast.

Starring as the title character, the talented Rhett Ricardo, who will be attending the Catholic University of America this fall in Washington, D.C., has a remarkable stage presence and carries the production on his sturdy shoulders. He's solid in the part as the farting ogre and gets to sing one of the great "I want" songs of the 21st Century-"Who I'd Be." Mr. Ricardo shows much confidence, but sometimes it's difficult understanding his words due to enunciation issues. His solo numbers are terrific overall, though he must watch that he doesn't end up shouting parts of the songs (like "Build the Wall") rather than singing them. But his Shrek is endearing-the audience adored him--and we appreciated his rogue journey. (By the way, is it my imagination, or does Mr. Ricardo resemble a young Mitchell Gonzalez?)

Kevin Grumbley as Donkey is diverting, delightful, dynamic, dazzling and a darling of the audience (he was also obviously one of their favorites). If you've ever seen the Beatles Yellow Submarine animated movie, then you will agree that his costume and face-paint makes him look like a donkey-ized Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.d. He owns both of his big songs, "Don't Le Me Go" and "Make a Move." And any Tampa Bay sports fan will appreciate his little nod to the Lightning ("Go Bolts!").

The audience applauded Reagan Ricardo as Lord Farquaad's entrance. With his Prince Valiant hairstyle, he looks like HR Pufnstuf's Jack Wilde (google him) mixed with the diminutive stature of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He's hilarious, especially his slow burn facial expressions. (And his Duloc performers, in their bright blonde Marilyn wigs, are played by both the girls and guys to knee-slapping effect.)

Gingy, the Gingerbread Man, played by Rio Ricardo is one of my top three favorites in the cast, starting off the anthem of individuality, "Freak Flag," with hair-raising vocals. Jack Raynor as Pinocchio is a hoot, but he screeched almost all of his lines and could rarely be understood. He reminded me of Gilbert Gottfried (RIP) on helium, or a particularly screechy Robert Plant without the rock or the roll.

If you've been to a Thespian festival in the last decade, then chances are you've run into one of SHREK THE MUSICAL'S most famous numbers, "I Know It's Today," featuring three Fiona's of different ages. Young Fiona, played by the adorable six year old, Raphaela Ricardo, has nice pitch, a true performer at such a tender age. And Sarah Hoerbelt as the Teenage Fiona is also quite good with sterling vocals.

But my vote for the best in the entire cast goes Jayden Parsons as Princess Fiona. What a singer, what a belt! From her first entrance, we knew we were witnessing someone who has it all-vocal chops, acting prowess, stage presence. With her red hair, she looks like Emma Stone (but with a better singing voice). Her Act 2 Opener, "Morning Person," is a stunner. (And the exploding bird is a spot-on hilarious choice and must be experienced by audiences.) But Ms. Parsons is an incredible talent with an incredible future; no one's got her beat.

Speaking of strong voices, Lyndsey Furtado as the Dragon is a showstopper, as showcased in her big one-off number, "Forever," featuring a foreboding, larger-than-life Dragon puppet (handled by Rhett Ricardo, Zachary Trenkle, Jacob DeClaire, Liliana Ruck, and Spencer Lowe). Wow.

The little children in the cast were meta-adorable, especially Ruby Ricardo as Baby Bear (who got to perform jaw-dropping flips at the end of the show). And certain performers got their moment to shine, including Hailey Garcia and Zachary Trenkle as Mama and Papa Ogre; Caven Raynor as a cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf; Rowen Heyman, Liliana Ruck and Gavin Hinton as the Three Little Pigs; Violet Ruck as the White Rabbit; Carly Bowling, Mackenzie Trenkle and Tristan Haberland as rockin' Three Blind Mice; and Samantha Border as the Fairy Godmother. Rhys Ricardo was especially cute-as-a-button as Young Shrek.

The rats with their enormous tails in "Morning Person" are tappers to be reckoned with (thanks to choreographer Melissa Walters); my favorite is the young'un who adorably had one rat-foot missing. Playing the rat-tapstic clan are: Harley White, Kayleena Pergerson, Alyssa White, Rowan Herman, Reagan Ricardo, Samantha Border, Mikayla Mauradian, Tristan Haberland, Ruby Ricardo and Rhys Ricardo.

One ensemble member stood out from the crowd and deserves to be singled out with a special mention. Onstage she's always alive, always in character. Sometimes members of the ensemble don't realize how important they are, and this young lady proves that it's not the size of a part that matters. Her name: Alyssa White. Every time there was a group number, she was always reacting, always in the moment, always moving with so much verve and purpose. She pumped the stage with life and the rest of the cast had to match her force. People sometimes say I should be a casting director, and if that's the case, then listen to me now: Judging solely from her work here as an ensemble member, Ms. White is someone to watch closely in the future.

Mitchell Gonzalez's direction is his usual top-notch quality. The show is both adorable and messy, but the messiness is inherent and part of the charm with a show like SHREK. I only had a couple of qualms with his choices. They could have upped the ante with "Travel Song"; walking through the audience is fine, but they could have been even more creative with the various figures Shrek and Donkey pass on their journey.

My other issue with directorial choices occurs during the wedding scene, where Shrek proclaims his love for Fiona ("Big Bright Beautiful World Reprise"). Instead of singing the song out to the audience, Shrek should be looking at Fiona and walking to her slowly. This is his moment, telling her of his love. But we don't feel the connection the way it's staged. (With Farquaad standing between them, we sometimes wonder who he's singing his love song to.) He needs to hold her hand and look into her eyes. We do feel the connection when they kiss at the end, but this particular moment could have been made even stronger.

The sets are perfunctory; they get the job done but not much more than that (which is okay; it's the kids who shine). The costumes, on the other hand, are creatively outstanding and so much fun. And the props are killer, including a particularly lonely tumbleweed and placards peppered with mottos like "Give Freaks a Chance" and "Make Duloc Great Again."

Music Director Brooke Gonzalez gets the most out of her young crooners. The voices were mostly spot-on, although there were moments with some pitch probelms and sometimes I couldn't hear several singers (some wore microphones and some didn't, and this made the sound quality uneven).

The show started off shakily, especially with microphone issues that seemed to throw the cast off of their game early on. Thankfully, most of the sound glitches were fixed and the rest of the show seemed to fly by. However, at one point near the end, we overheard one of the young performers talking backstage into their mic, asking quite loudly, "What's next, the wedding scene?" This is a teachable moment. Student performers must learn that they are not to speak backstage at any time, because sometimes there will inevitably be a live mic nearby or actually on them. And when the audience hears something like this, it takes us out of the show, out of the story being told; there is no way to fix this other than TO BE QUIET BACKSTAGE. In this particular instance, it momentarily took us out of the post-"Freak Flag" high.

On a separate note, my hat goes off to Jill Finnerty Ricardo and the creators of the first class program itself; it's thicker than some magazines I've read and celebrates each of these amazingly talented urchins with photos and full bios. Fantastic.

This has been an extremely difficult week, with the horrifying and world-weary sadness of the carnage of school children in Uvalde, Texas. SHREK THE MUSICAL takes us away from all of that; it's an escape in the best sense of the word. And don't worry, it's not fluff; it has great meaning and spirit. For two and half hours, we can enjoy this raucous show, bask in the talent of these young performers, and forget the depressing reality the exists outside of the theater. And when the entire cast appears on the stage at the end, pumping their fists in the air to the beat of a particularly energetic "I'm a Believer," the whole thing becomes a much-needed tonic in these troubled times.



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From This Author - Peter Nason