MAGNA — Shrek The Musical far surpassed my expectations for the DreamWorks film-turned-Broadway musical. The script basically takes all the best jokes from the movie Shrek then expands them into song form. The songs and script are all clever and accessible, whether you’ve seen the movie or not.
The musical opens with some backstory in which the audience is introduced to Shrek and Fiona while they’re still children, before each moves into their respective swamp/tower. The script (written by David Lindsay-Abaire) then followed the movie fairly closely, with Shrek’s peaceful ogre lifestyle thrown awry when a slew of fairy-tale creatures take up residence in his swamp. Shrek and a donkey he encounters along the way head to the local city of Duloc to bargain with Lord Farquadd so that he’ll let the creatures return to the city. Soon Donkey and Shrek are on a quest to free Princess Fiona from her tower so they can give her to Lord Farquadd in exchange for Shrek’s swamp. Songs (composed by Jeanine Tesori), dances and lots of laughs accompany the duo every step of the way.
Every member of the cast gave very strong vocals, even those in minor roles. Donkey (Matt Green) and Shrek (Brett Andersen) were both talented vocalists, but even more impressively their vocal performances perfectly matched the personalities of their movie-personas. Because the musical began in Fiona’s childhood, the princess appeared in several iterations. Each version Fiona had an impressive voice (Carrie Johnson, Nyssa Sara Lee, Hanna Dial, Sheridan Walk), with Hanna Dial standing out in particular for having such a strong voice at such a young age.
Derek Green, as Lord Farquadd, was easy to laugh at and did a wonderful job conjuring the spirit of his tiny, villainous character. In the role of the dragon, Tanya Rasmussen gave such a strong performance that I was delighted every time she showed up.
The costumes (designed by Melissa Buxton) were used creatively to make it easy for audience members to distinguish between the different fairy tale creatures. Lord Farquadd’s costume was ingenious: his tiny stature was accomplished by having him walk on his knees throughout the entire play, as tiny stuffed legs hung from his waist with feet at his knees. The ogres woren green face paint with rubber ears. Each version of Fiona was easy to identify by her red wig and similarly colored and designed dresses. Creative costuming for fairy characters and other elements. My favorite use of creative costuming was when several small children dressed as little flames (AnnDee Belliston, Annastasia Johnson, Mason Johnson, Lizzie Walk, Brynnlie Gurr, Hanna Dial) ran about on stage during the dragon scene.
This was an ambitious musical for co-directors Jake Andersen and Rebecca Walk to take on in a local production. Their efforts were most successful in company-numbers. During the large-scale song-and-dance numbers, the choreography (Corina Johnson) was always delightful. The well-executed dances pulled the company together while still maintaining the individual characters of the various fairytale creatures. I especially enjoyed scenes with tap dancing and ballet.
However, the musical numbers where just a few characters were on stage singing often lacked that same kind of creative choreography or action that would have helped the jokes succeed. Even with very talented vocalists, the minimalistic set and props sometimes meant not enough was happening on stage to engage my attention. The pacing of dialogue between scenes sometimes dragged as well, so the play ultimately felt overly long.
Sound (Curtis Bailey) design was most successful with main characters. Sometimes, however, the balance between the accompaniment and vocalists made it difficult to understand the lyrics. This was particularly true when characters spoke in high-pitched voices. For example, understood less than half of what Pinocchio (Hayden Hill) said, which was unfortunate since he seemed to be one of the play’s main comic characters. During full-company numbers, it was hard to understand solos because not everyone wore a microphone.
The set (by Devin Johnson, Lorrinda Christensen, Jake Andersen) was minimal yet creative for the surroundings. A platform above the stage was backed with painted wooden panels on sliders that were changed to represent changes of scene. This upper-level was often used to creative effect as fairy-tale creatures paraded across it, and characters moved from one level of the stage to another to signify progress in their journey.
The Empress Theatre is always a pleasant experience, as very talented local actors come together to produce ambitious shows with very few resources. I love the community atmosphere at the Empress, as the audience is always filled with members of the community pointing out their friends and family on stage. On top of that atmosphere, Shrek The Musical combines a talented cast with a terrific script to produce something special.