SYRACUSE — Shrek the Musical, with music by Jeanine Tesori and a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, is based on the 2001 animated movie of the same name. In 2008, it opened on Broadway, and over the years it has become a fan favorite in Utah. Syracuse City has brought the freaks to their stage under the direction of LeAnna Hamblin in a production starring Clarissa Wykstra as Fiona, John Rollins as the title character, and Gavin Moyes as Donkey. While the remake of a movie is starting to become a tired trope in the theatre scene, I am not sure I could get sick of Shrek, especially if the casting of Fiona, Shrek, and Donkey, are done correctly.
Each year that I have seen a show at Syracuse Arts, I am continually impressed by their commitment to have a live orchestra, conducted this year by Tim Koster. The level of professionalism that this adds to a production is immense, and while this is a community production, the addition of live music makes it feel more on par with stronger, more professional productions. Indeed, live music makes Syracuse City Arts Council’s Shrek surpass some houses in the area that charge much more for their tickets and yet do not bother to showcase the talent of musicians. I commend Syracuse for doing this year after year and hope that they never stop.
However, one frustrating part of the evening was the sound system, which is often indicative of the low-budget theatre company. I was taken by just how well the little Fiona (played by Lilly Hoggan) handled one of the worst technical challenges of the evening. Hoggan’s microphone cut out during her main solo of “I Know It’s Today,” yet she held steady, and her voice was strong enough that I could still hear her loud and clear while the microphone struggled in and out. It felt like a master class of holding character.
Speaking of Fiona, Wykstra is such a great fit for this role. She balances the idea of princess/ogre with such ease. Wykstra has the warmth and humor necessary to carry the role, and her golden voice is a joy to listen to in every song. She and Rollins as Shrek had great chemistry, and he played well the grumpy orge with a surprising tender heart.
Moyes as Donkey was a treat, in what is easily the best and most fun role of the show. His “Travel Song” and “Don’t Let Me Go” are a lot of fun, and the comedic timing was stellar. I really enjoyed a lot of the inside jokes that were thrown in by both Donkey and Shrek during these numbers, some relating to pop culture and others that had more of a Syracuse native flair. A fun surprise was Brannwynn Michelle as the Dragon, who played the role with a lot of feisty energy. I especially loved the costume. (Where do I get the cape?) Costume team members Kennedy Miller, Jim Tatton, Lisa Taylor, and Ashlee Fawcett certainly had a lot of fun with this show, which allowed them to assemble an array of fairy tale costumes from many different tales. Some of my favorites were the tiny seven dwarfs, the witch, and all the different princesses. Having been to many of the productions of Syracuse City in the past, it was fun to see a few costumes from previous shows show up in clever ways during different songs, and I appreciate the reuse for both humor and as a way to make production value go further.
The music of Shrek has always been such a fun part of the show, and music director Elinor Blankenship has done a superb job of helping this cast master the score. Some of the best numbers in the show are ensemble numbers, like the “Story of My Life” in the first act and the “Let Your Freak Flag Fly” in the second act, both of which had really strong vocals that were amplified with the orchestra.
Community theatre is never perfect. But as a critic that gets to see everything from Broadway to K-12 shows, seeing community theatre remains one of my favorite pastimes. When I attend a Broadway production, I expect perfection. I have paid a lot and I want to see the professionals who do this for a living give me a spectacle. When I attend community theatre, I want to see my talented neighbors let their freak flag fly. Shrek the Musical is a fun way to spend an evening with the other freaks in your life and a reminder that — as the final song says — what makes us special, makes us strong.