OREM — SCERA’s Shrek the Musical kicks off the company’s 2018 outdoor season. Like a favorite bedtime story, the play’s success hinges on providing a satisfactory retelling of a familiar tale. This excellent cast can deliver on the expectations that Shrek fans have for their beloved characters.
Shrek the Musical is a slavish reproduction of the 2001 animated Dreamworks film about the title ogre who rescues the princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded tower so that he can be left alone in the swamp that he calls his home. The stage version holds no surprises for people who have seen the film; nearly every plot point is reproduced on stage. Thus, when Shrek sings, “Fairy tales should really be updated” in the second act, the message rings hollow.
Shawn M. Mortensen served as director of this production. Mortensen’s direction starts rocky, with an opening scene where important lyrics are sung with actors’ backs turned to the audience, which deflates the humor of the scene. But as the production progressed, missteps like this became increasingly rare. Mortensen’s best decision was to focus on Shrek’s and Fiona’s desires and emotions, and moments that revealed these characters vulnerabilities were the best parts of the show. For example, “When Words Fail” was staged so that Shrek’s inner turmoil was reflected in his determined but abortive movements around the stage. “Who I’d Be” and “I Know It’s Today” were also strong in the way Mortensen’s direction allowed the audience to see the character’s underlying psychology. I also appreciated Shrek and Fiona’s interactions in the second act, which brought some heart into the story and made me invested in the character’s blossoming relationship.
Kyle Baugh played Shrek with well . . . layers. In some scenes he demonstrated steely resolve, such as when he knew he had to fight a dragon or when he sang “Build a Wall.” Baugh could also show a tender side of Shrek, especially in the second act as he realized his feelings for the princess he had rescued. Brittney Wallace was equally multidimensional in her performance. In Wallace’s first entrance—during “I Know It’s Today”—confidently and powerfully sang a prolonged note, which quickly telegraphed Fiona’s self-assurance. Wallace then built on this steady foundation in “This is How a Dream Comes True.” As a result, when Fiona starts ordering Shrek to take off his helmet or to establish camp, her dominance was completely believable. Wallace was also capable of establishing a real heartfelt connection with Shrek, which increased the importance of the conflict in the second act.
Baugh and Wallace were supported by an excellent amateur cast that includes several standouts. Rachel Ricks played the dragon with charisma, and she surprised me with how phenomenally good her vocal belt was in “Forever” and the finale. Teanca Rossouw was an memorable Gingy, and the puppet’s torture scene featured the first real emotion of the play. Tanner Perkins, as Lord Farquaad, made the most of a role that was more caricature than character. Perkins was able to make Farquaad more than a petulant jerk, though even his best efforts couldn’t overcome the problems inherent in “Ballad of Farquaad,” the worst song of the play.
Additionally, this production of Shrek the Musical was blessed with a strong ensemble. Their energy in “Story of My Life” jump-started the play and set the silly tone for the entire evening. The also cast executed Sunny Watts‘s simple but effective choreography so well that missteps were extremely rare occurrences. Their dancing was most effective in “Freak Flag” and “Story of My Life,” though “Make a Move” and “Morning Person” also brimmed with charm.
The only weak links in the cast were Josh Needles as Donkey and James Marsden as Pinocchio. Though I breathed a great sigh of relief when Needles didn’t do his best Eddie Murphy impression as he played Donkey, I found his performance bland. Needles lacked energy and any hint of non-human mannerisms. Like most of the rest of the show, though, he improved in the second act, and his performance in “Make a Move” was satisfying in how it showed that Donkey had become invested in Shrek’s well-being. (To be fair, Donkey is the most difficult role in the show.) Marsden, on the other hand, did mimic the film’s version of Pinocchio, including a falsetto voice that quickly wore thin.
The music direction of this production (by Brandalee Streeter) of Shrek was superb, with nearly every note and chord sounding wonderful. Ensemble numbers like “Freak Flag” and “What’s Up Duloc?” featured excellent harmonies, while the more intimate songs, such as “When Words Fail” and “Build a Wall” were brimming with sentiment. Indeed, this cast is far too good for the weak score composed by Jeanine Tesori, with lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. (It is very telling that the show’s creators want the last song the audience hears before leaving the theater to be the 1966 Neil Diamond hit “I’m a Believer,” and not a song from the score.)
From a technical standpoint, Shrek the Musical is a difficult production, with its many locations, dragon, and plethora of fairy tale characters that require fantastical costumes. The greatest accomplishment were the three puppets (Gingy, the dragon, and an unfortunate bird in “Morning Person”) for whom there is no credited designer. These puppets strengthened the whimsical story and provided some unexpected eye candy. Costume designer Kelsey Seaver was effective in creating costumes that made the ensemble’s many fairy tale costumes instantly recognizable. On the other hand, the the tight, reflective costumes for the Duloc dancers were extremely unflattering for many cast members and detracted from those scenes. Another unfortunate technical element was Shrek’s makeup, which appeared very splotchy and unevenly applied in the performance I saw.
Shrek the Musical is not a masterpiece, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of SCERA’s production, and I had a nice evening. I guess that is because the lesson of Shrek is that it is possible to love something, even if it is not flawlessly beautiful.
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