Delightful. That’s how I would characterize Shrek: The Musical, though I’ll admit my expectations were a little low for a children’s movie turned Broadway hit. The greatest strengths of this new era of the musical are also its worst weaknesses. The flexibility commonly applied to the genre allows it to consume and adapt, well, almost anything (the premise of the musical “Hands on a Hardbody,” for instance, is an endurance contest at a truck dealership – last person to still be touching the truck wins it. But, I hear it’s pretty good). It seems the fabric of the form is stretched a little more each year.
Shrek: The Musical finds a lot of dialogue with the silliness and transparencies of its subtitle. The original Pixar spiel was to subvert some of the expectations of the fairy tale in an off-handed, all-ages kind of way. So, fitting that the musical should map the same tongue in cheek approach to its own form. It tracks the film quite faithfully, though: in the same travel montage where Shrek and Donkey seem to cover the globe to arrive at the dragon guarded castle, they encounter in passing not only fairy tale creatures, but also a few of their musical brethren, including the Lion King puppets. Subtly tied into several songs are nods to musicals gone-by as well as present. As subtle as you can be feigning a launch into Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” that is.
But, that is also why musicals rule: their basic goal is simply to delight. And when do we get to do that? Can we ever get enough of it? Is there such a thing as… too much delight? Such deep-end-of-the-pool queries aren’t exactly out of place in the world of the musical, only expect for a fart joke to bubble up if any such musings linger.
And, Shrek has more than its fair share of those.
The real beauty of the Broadway trend to expend so much energy on unlikely musicals (dare I evoke the rock musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark?) is that they go full hog. The talent behind Shrek: The Musical impresses. The book and lyrics belong to David Lindsay-Abaire, whose play, Rabbit Hole, received the Pulitzer in 2007. He also did the film adaptation that garnered Nicole Kidman an Oscar nomination. And Jeanine Tesori’s score may not be a revelation, but I bet you will be tapping your feet before it is over— she has been nominated for a Tony once more than thrice. Jason Moore of Avenue Q directed the original Broadway cast. The director of the traveling production, Stephen Sposito, was also Assistant Director for the original.
The show innovates marvelously to adapt the screen success to stage. The running joke of Farquaad’s diminutive stature is even better captured with the actor playing the role on his knees with legging-ed legs sewn to his thighs. Hilarious pranks ensue. The character of Dragon is beautifully worked as a large puppet. Puppetry and the musical are becoming quite well married at this point. (I once saw a children’s theatre perform Puss in Boots the opera – one of the best things I’ve ever seen). Good puppetry is, like all good theatre, magic.
Courtney Daniels, the voice of Dragon, might be the greatest vocal talent of the cast, but I was wowed by quite a few. Perry Sook, the man behind the Shrek costume, wasn’t half-bad, but his style betrayed what I suspect is a classical background, which always sounds a little stuffy in the realm of musicals. Belting isn’t an operatic term. Jeremy Gaston as Donkey and Whitney Winfield as Princess Fiona both shone in their solos, Gaston perhaps more so. Everyone on stage managed the necessity of carving out characters much larger than life.
The show-stopper was Christian Marriner as Lord Farquaad (he literally pauses during one scene to encourage the audience to applaud him). Not only does he shuffle around throughout the show on his knees, but he makes it look like a good time. His is a fairly charming take on the character, but it never seems out of place. The musical version of Farquaad is meant to be a little more complex, even supplied with a song dedicated to his family history. Marriner seems to take every opportunity the character offers.
The Walton Art Center’s latest season of musical fare will certainly demonstrate some of the breadth of possible configurations. The thing is, I find myself excited for all of it. From the quirky animated comedy-made-musical, to the movie drama-made-musical, the war story, the pop-rock-blues showcases to the very traditional Anything Goes, there is always some aspect I find intriguing, even thrilling. Each of them revel in their own improbability, that love or vengeance or the spirit of exploration might burst into song at all. And why not?
Come delight in Shrek: The Musical, showing at the Walton Art Center through November 4th. Tickets can be purchased at waltonartscenter.org.
Tobias writes theatre reviews for the Fayetteville Flyer. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts through the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation and teaches at the University of Arkansas. He is also an associate company member with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. For more of Tobias’ contributions, see his author page.