I don’t think I’ve ever heard farting so much before in the theatre. No, it wasn’t a flatulent theatre goer in front of me, but rather a bonding moment (a “fart-off,” to be exact) between that green ogre Shrek and the red-headed Princess Fiona in the second act. The number — a kind of Generation X response to Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun — was met with huge laughs by kids and parents alike at last night’s press opening, and is representative of the entire show: an in-your-face family musical that refuses to take itself too seriously.
In fact, that’s the biggest stumbling block for Shrek the Musical — a show that enjoyed a vaguely successful run on Broadway last year and is now receiving a new national tour that officially opened last night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. It’s so quick to laugh at itself that the heart of the story (a story I’m sure we’re all familiar with thanks to the hit Dreamworks films) is often passed by for the joke. Scenes clip along with self-referential “aren’t we clever?” asides that are amusing at first, but eventually you want something emotional to grab at you.
Thankfully, we have Eric Petersen’s wonderfully full-bodied performance in the lumbering title role to fill that void. His Shrek is a little sad, awkward and irritated. It’s easy to root for him. You want him to find true love. Adopting that light Scottish accent originated by Mike Myers in the film (Dreamworks produced both the Broadway production and this new tour), you are both familiar with this swamp fellow and rediscovering him at the same moment.
Haven Burton as Fiona also makes a strong impression. This Fiona is a high strung “morning person.” She sings to birds until they (literally) burst with joy and tap dances with rats. She needs Shrek to ground her. Along the way to saving Fiona from her tower, Shrek runs into that lovable (or irritating, depending on your tolerance for shtick) sidekick Donkey, and Alan Mingo, Jr. plays this one-note role to the hilt. As the show’s (short) villain, David F.M. Vaughn is very fine as the petulant Lord Farquaad, performing the entire role on his knees. The hard-working, quick-changing cast keeps this fairy-tale land populated with all sorts of fun and familiar characters.
Quite simply: this cast is fantastic. They fill the show’s holes with heart.
The physical design, courtesy of Tim Hately, is also impressive without overpowering. It’s amazing what one can do with simple scrims and a few well-chosen set pieces. And I want to make special mention of the huge dragon puppet. Oh my goodness – this is one amazing piece of stagecraft. You have to see it to believe it. Click on the production photo to the left to get a taste.
Is this a perfect musical? Far from it. The show takes a while to find its feet, and Jeanine Tesori’s folksy, bright score has a bit of an anonymous quality to it. There’s no musical motif to capture the essence of Shrek’s world. But the story is timeless, the message is necessary (wave your freak flag high!) and the cast is fun. So go — you’ll enjoy yourself. It’s a fine show for both kids and grownups.
“Shrek the Musical” plays through September 5 at the Cadillac Place Theatre. More information here >