SALT LAKE CITY — There has been a long history of adapting cartoons and animated movies to the Broadway stage, from Li’l Abner to Annie, to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to the whole slate of Disney adaptations. In this same vein comes Shrek the Musical, with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the 2001 Dreamworks movie, it is a fun adaptation of the movie to the stage.
The plot is essentially the same as the film, with minor alterations. One of biggest alterations, and I think the most inventive, is the use of puppets to get essential characters into the stage version. Making the dragon a puppet (and even having her sing) was a brilliant idea: it allows for a fully “fleshed-out” dragon to exist onstage. Another character that appears as a puppet is Gingy, the gingerbread man. Having the Gingy puppet manipulated from behind a “cookie sheet” was a great way to include one of the funniest bits from the movie into the live action musical.
Also inventive was having the actor who played Lord Farquaad (Christian Marriner) on his knees, in a rig that allows him to move and to stand when needed; but that also provides the illusion that he is of lesser stature by using little, stuffed legs. The production team and Marriner make great use of this gimmick when he proposes to Fiona.
The puppet, scenic, and costume design for the original production were done by Tim Hatley, with the scenic design adapted for the road by James Krozner. These three elements are what really shine in this production. The set transforms seamlessly from one scene to the next. Having the sliding legs painted as trees allowed for great contrast in the scene shifts. The costumes instantly evoke the movie and give familiarity to the characters.
Perry Sook as Shrek is splendidly cast. He maintains the Scottish accent well throughout and has a powerful singing voice. His presence is very commanding as the ogre with a heart. Whitney Winfield was wonderful in the part of Princess Fiona. She was bubbly, adorable and offered just the right amount of sass playing this unconventional princess. Particularly wonderful was her Act II opening number, “Morning Person,” complete with a tap-dancing troupe of rats (provided by the Pied Piper). However, the real crowd favorite was Christian Marriner as Lord Farquaad. Marriner easily stole every scene he was in and was an absolute joy to watch. He was brilliant in the kneeling rig and really was accomplished at the visual gags afforded by the rig. Plus, he showed excellent comedic timing with all of his dialogue.
As I mentioned before, there are some alterations to the story. The first is the opening of the show. The audience sees how Shrek came to live on his own and how Fiona came to be locked in the tower. In true animated story fashion, it all comes about because of poor parenting. Shrek is sent off on his own at 7, while Fiona is sent at 7 to live in a tower guarded by a dragon. This is a good addition to the play—it sets up the plot and provides some context to what is about to happen. Another interesting addition was a scene showing the young, teen, and then grown Fiona singing about the day she would be rescued. The song “I Know it’s Today” and this scene helped to explain the character of Fiona and why she is a little odder than your normal princess.
Unfortunately, not everything about this show was wonderful. One complaint I have about opening night was that there were times where Sook’s microphone did not work consistently, and because of that some of Shrek’s dialogue was hard to understand. Another problem was the one of the additions to the story, the scene where the fairy tale creatures decide to go crash the wedding. While this scene added a nice song, “Freak Flag,” it did nothing to actually advance the plot. The scene was added mainly to allow more stage time for those characters. While that’s not a bad thing, it just felt like what it is: padding. Additionally, there were some pitch problems that night, starting with the opening scene. Courtney Daniels had a lot of trouble singing the correct pitch as Mama Ogre, but was flawless as the Dragon later in the night. Sook’s singing as Shrek was magnificent, until the final scene during the “Big Bright Beautiful World” reprise. The pitch problems seemed to come at random times, and thankfully they were not major issues throughout the show.
The biggest complaint I have about the whole evening, however, was that Shrek the Musical didn’t feel like a big Broadway musical. It was enjoyable and had catchy songs, but none that I was humming the next day. It also seemed to fail at the biggest thing the movie had going for it: innocent fun for the kids and cheeky fun for the adults. Rather, the musical was much more adult-oriented in its humor than some audience members would expect. To that point, there were a few young children in front of me and my wife that seemed to lose interest in the show partway through. To me, it felt more like an expanded and highly polished amusement park show, one that you would see at Universal Studios or at Disneyland, rather than at a Broadway show.
Still, the show was fun and enjoyable to watch. Because I had lesser expectations going in, I enjoyed myself more than I anticipated. While this musical is not a classic that will endure for the ages, it is still a highly enjoyable show.