It’s Big, Green, Scary… and On The Stage

There is this common belief in certain sectors in Hollywood that animated pictures translate well into stage musicals. Sometimes they do, and are quite successful—witness the continuing success of “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”. Sometimes the result is just average, as in “The Little Mermaid”. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, as in “Tarzan”. Some animated shows that cry out to be turned into musicals, such as “Up”; and some are better left on the screen, such as “Home on the Range”. Today, we saw one of the entries in the “just average” camp: “Shrek—The Musical” at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Shrek—The Musical” basically tells the story told in the film, with a little added backstory. The story begins with Shrek’s backstory: On his seventh birthday, Shrek’s parents kick him out of their house and into the world to make his living. We see how Shrek is attacked and ends up alone in a swamp, only to be invaded by a bunch of fairy creatures exiled from the Kingdom of Duloc by order of the diminutive Lord Farquaad. Shrek decides to travel to see Farquaad to try to regain his privacy, reluctantly rescuing a talkative Donkey along the way. Meanwhile, Lord Farquaad uses torture on a cookie to discover the whereabouts of the princess he wishes to marry to become king. We learn her backstory, and Shrek is recruited to rescue the princess. Shrek and Donkey then set off to find the princess. Arriving at the castle, Shrek sets off alone to rescue Fiona while Donkey encounters a ferocious female Dragon who initially wants to eat him, but then wants to keep him for her own after Donkey manages to charm her. Shrek rescues Fiona, but his lack of interest in playing out her desired rescue scene leaves Shrek no choice but to drag her off by force. The two of them reunite with Donkey and all escape. After convincing Shrek to reveal his identity, Fiona is appalled that her rescuer is an ogre. Shrek explains that he is merely her champion; instead, she is to wed Lord Farquaad. The trio begins their journey back to Farquaad’s palace, while Fiona attempts to hide her secret: She turns into an ogress at night. As the trip continues, Shrek falls for Fiona, and then gets angry when he overhears her saying that no one can love an ugly beast. Lord Farquaad now arrives to claim Princess Fiona. While not very impressed with Farquaad, Fiona agrees to marry him and insists that they have the wedding before sunset. As they ride back to Duloc, Donkey tries to explain the misunderstanding to Shrek, and Shrek rejects him as well, declaring that he will return to his swamp alone and build a wall against the outside world. Meanwhile, the fairy tale creatures decide that just because they are freaks does not mean they deserve to be hated. The predictable ending happens: Shrek rescues the Princess from her wedding, aided by the fairy creatures. During the argument, the sun sets, causing Fiona to turn into an ogress in front of everyone. Farquaad, furious and disgusted over the change, orders that Shrek be killed and Fiona banished back to her tower. As Farquaad proclaims himself the new king, Donkey whistles for the Dragon, who crashes through the window and destroys Lord Farquaad. Admitting their love for each other, Shrek and Fiona share a kiss. Fiona’s curse is broken and she takes her true form: an ogress. They all live happily ever after.

In other words: What we have here is basically a children’s story on stage for 2½ hours. There are in-references to other musicals thrown in (I quickly identified homages to Dreamgirls, Lion King, B&TB, Les Miz), and a few more adult jokes (such as Lord Farquaad being thrown out because he was 27 and living in his parent’s basement) to try to make the parents happy, but it is a children’s story at its heart. That can work if the underyling book is timeless (witness The Lion King, which is really Hamlet), but often it fails. Shrek, at its heart, is a film that did not cry to be musicalized. The music, while cute and at times memorable, does not always move the story along. Hence, the book dooms this musical to the second tier.

The second problem with the show is almost every actor is in some form of heavy costume, the exception being Fiona. This limits the actor’s ability to express themselves in manners other than something vocal. This is especially a problem for the Shrek character, whose acting is mostly plastic due to the costume. At least Donkey and Farquaad get a full face. This doesn’t mean that some of the costumes aren’t inspired. Farquaad’s costume, in particular, is excellent: the actor does the entire show on his knees to simulate the short height of the character, and it works. Donkey’s costume is effective, as is Pinocchio’s.

There are also some wonderful character effects. One of the big changes from the Broadway production—and one that works quite well—is the conversion of the dragon to a large puppet handled by four actors. This is actually one of the best things about the show: it moves well and effectively, and emotes much better than Shrek! The dragon is voiced by an offstage actress. Also effective was Fiona’s transformations, both as she aged and as she turned into the ogress. I’ve already noted the wonderful way they handle Lord Farquaad.

Most of the actors were pretty good (what you could see of them), although Erin though Shrek didn’t hit all his notes. In the lead, Eric Petersen sang reasonable well and attempted to act through the heavy makeup. As Princess Fiona, Haven Burton has a lovely singing voice, and portrayed the character quite well. Even stronger was Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey: he had a great singing voice and reasonably good comic skills, although the book needed to give him more humor. Lastly, as Lord Farquaad, David F.M. Vaughn did remarkably on his knees, singing and playing quite well.

In the second acting tier, there were some remarkable standouts. I particularly liked Carrie Compere (Dragon, Mama Ogre, Tweedledum) as the singing voice of the Dragon. She has a lovely voice, and I hope she goes far with it. Also strong was Blakely Slaybaugh as Pinocchio: he brought some nice comic touches to the role. Rounding out the cast were Holly Ann Butler (Wicked Witch, Blind Mouse, Queen Lillian), Tyrone Davis Jr. (Bricks, Guard, Dragon Puppeteer), Sandra Denise (Sugar Plum Fairy, Bluebird), , Hayley Feinstein (Young Shrek, Dwarf), Aymee Garcia (Mama Bear, Gingy), Derek Hanson (Papa Ogre, Straw, Knight, Pied Piper, Bishop), Benjamin Howes (Papa Bear, Thelonius Knight), Cara Kem (Baby Bear, Blind Mouse), Denny Paschall (Pepter Pan, Guard, Dragon Head), Sarah Peak (Ugly Duckling, Teen Fiona), Keven Quillon (Guard, Dragon Puppeteer), Morgan Rose (Shoemaker’s Elf, Blind Mouse), Jason W. Shuffler (Big Bad Wolf, King Harold, Captain of the Guard, Knight), Danielle Soibelman (Young Fiona), and Julius Thomas III (Sticks, Guard, Dragon Puppeteer). Joe Abraham, Emily Cramer, David Foley Jr., Sean McKnight (Assst. Dance Captain), and Mara Newbery (Dance Captain) were swings.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Shrek features book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. The production was directed by Rob Ashford and Jason Moore. Choreography was by Josh Prince.

Technically, the production was pretty good. The sets, costumes, and especially the puppets by Tim Hatley were wonderful. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting was nice. The sound by Peter Hylenski was reasonably clear (by the way, we learned a trick for the Pantages: rent a headset). Wig/Hair design was by David Brian Brown, with makeup by Naomi Donne. Marshall Magoon was Illusions Consultant. Joel Rosen was Production Stage Manager, with Anna R. Kaltenbach as Stage Manager and Bryan Rountree as Assistant Stage Manager.

Orchestrations were by Danny Troob, assisted by John Glancy. Tim Weil was music supervisor. Andy Grobengieser was music director. Music coordination was by Michael Keller. Dance arrangements were by Matthew Sklar. Evan Ensign was associate director, and Stephen Sposito was assistant director.

This is the last stop on the “Shrek—The Musical” tour, with the last show on July 31. We’re exploring getting Flex tickets to Broadway/LA for their next season. Shows of interest are Billy Elliot: The Musical (D, E, K), The Addams Family (D, E, K), Million Dollar Quartet (D), La Cage Aux Folles (E), Memphis (D, E), and Riverdance (K).

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “The Boys Next Door” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16 (rescheduled to March 2012). October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.