Shrek the Musical opens, full of flippant perversity

The stage show, bound for Broadway, freely re-imagines the movie and cuts through the treacle with zaniness and layered satire. The preview is a tight production, but there's a problem with the title character.
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<i>Shrek</i> the movie. (DreamWorks)

The stage show, bound for Broadway, freely re-imagines the movie and cuts through the treacle with zaniness and layered satire. The preview is a tight production, but there's a problem with the title character.

"Being liked is overrated," sings the big, green lug at the heart of Shrek: The Musical.

Yeah, well, get used to it, Mr. Titular Ogre.

Shrek, the animated medieval monster who made a hit out of three DreamWorks movies, lives again, for the most part delightfully so, in a staged musical adaptation of the original, 2001 film. Destined for Broadway, the extravagant production has been getting a workout at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, officially opening September 10 after three weeks of previews. The show closes on the 21st.

Movies resurrected as Broadway hits are a fact of life, given such successes as Spamalot (Eric Idle's revamping of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and theatrical do-overs of Hairspray, The Lion King and Footloose. Within that crowd, Shrek, the film, is closest to the anarchic Holy Grail, with its layered satire of cherished Western fables. Shrek's story concerns a misanthropic ogre who loses the deed to his home and can only retrieve it from the conniving Lord Farquaad by rescuing Princess Fiona from the tower in which she is imprisoned. (Farquaad needs to marry a princess in order to become a king.)

Such earnestness is undercut in Shrek by serious silliness: Farquaad is about four-feet-tall, Fiona becomes an ogre when the sun goes down, and Shrek is reluctantly accompanied on his journey by a jiving donkey (named Donkey) who loves a dragon. Oh, yeah, there's also a small army of familiar but affectionately ridiculed figures from popular fairy tales and children's rhymes: Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pan, etc. Reduced from mythic status to a gaggle of ragtag protesters bemoaning their treatment by Farquaad, these whiny icons further the comedy's intractable irreverence.

Shrek the Musical has all this flippant perversity and more, including such enjoyably incongruent passages as a television show based on "The Dating Game." It's a good thing, too, because given that the grouchy hero wears his outsider status with pride while secretly aching with loneliness, Shrek the Musical conveniently stokes the kind of adolescent, misunderstood-outcast sentiment that passes for conflict in family-friendly entertainment today. The zanier side of the show minimizes the treacle.

The book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Rabbit Hole) freely re-imagine the film's key scenes and include quite a few new ones. Tony-nominated Jeanine Tesori's original music doesn't necessarily leave one exiting the theater whistling a memorable tune. (The closest thing is "Words Fail Me," sung by Broadway veteran Brian D'Arcy James, hidden beneath a bulky body suit and helmet-shaped green head as Shrek.) But in an in-the-moment, scene-by-scene way, Tesori's work buoys the funnier material and keeps a tasteful lid on more serious fare.

The seemingly endless sets (including an entire redwood forest) are nothing short of dazzling, and the cast is uniformly memorable, with Sutton Foster a pleasure as the feisty Fiona, and Christopher Sieber delighting the audience as the sardonic villain, Farquaad. (The show's best, Pythonesque in-joke is the obviousness of rangy Sieber's portrayal of the diminutive prince; i.e., the actor performs the part from his knees.)

The show seems fairly tight as pre-Broadway run-throughs go. But if there is a significant area worth re-tooling, it has to be Shrek himself. Lumbering around the stage, particularly during the first half, the character's self-possession translates into, well, not being all that funny or even transparent. Shrek might anchor the story and allow Fiona, Farquaad, and Donkey (Chester Gregory) all the best lines. But this is a figure originally and brilliantly played (as a vocal performance) by Mike Myers in the film. Myers' perceptible wink was crucial to its success. (In fact, Myers recorded his performance twice, realizing after a first go that giving Shrek a Scottish accent would make him funnier.) Somehow, the show's makers need to recapture that element of novelty.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Tom Keogh

Tom Keogh is a longtime writer about classical music, books, and film.