(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reverend's Preview: Let Your Freak Flag Fly at Shrek The Musical

DreamWorks Animation Studios has created such hit movies over the years as The Prince of Egypt, How to Train Your Dragon and the current blockbuster Kung Fu Panda 2. But as Dreamworks' CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg recently told a group of journalists (including myself) specially invited to his lavish studio compound for a private sneak peek at Shrek The Musical, a Broadway smash making its Southern California premiere in July, "Welcome to the house that Shrek built."

The first Shrek film, inspired by William Steig's classic storybook, was released in 2001 and inspired three sequels. Shrek The Musical premiered in New York in 2009 and was subsequently nominated for several Tony Awards. It will be performed at San Diego's Civic Theatre from July 5-10 and at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles July 12-31.

"There is no more defining character or story for DreamWorks than Shrek," Katzenberg said. It took a diverse group of artists to transfer the film to the stage. These include Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, who directed 1999's Best Picture American Beauty for DreamWorks and first proposed the idea of a Shrek musical; author and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Rabbit Hole (which was made last year into an Oscar-nominated movie); Jeanine Tesori, who also composed the music for gay playwright Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change; and co-directors Jason Moore (Avenue Q) and Rob Ashford (the recent Broadway revival of Promises Promises, among other credits).

Shrek The Musical adheres closely to the first movie's plot about an initially disgruntled, ultimately heroic ogre who falls in love with the seemingly human Princess Fiona. Along the way, he befriends a chatty Donkey and squares off against the villainous Lord Farquad. An assortment of classic fairy tale characters (including Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, Humpty Dumpty and the Gingerbread Man) round out the cast.

"We could make all sorts of changes in telling the story," according to DreamWorks Theatricals President Bill Damaschke, "but in the end Shrek has to be Shrek, Fiona has to be Fiona, Farquad has to be Farquad, and Donkey has to be Donkey." Damaschke, who is currently preparing the first London production of Shrek The Musical, also said, "It's a big show, necessitating many logistical challenges" in transferring it from Broadway to the tour. It also entailed several artistic challenges. Some things that didn't work as well in the generally well-received New York production were "too literal," says Damaschke, so the tour has simplified them and is more successful as a result.

Eric Petersen, a 29-year old actor who performed in Shrek The Musical on Broadway, will play the title role in Los Angeles and San Diego. He was on hand at the press event to sing a show-stopping song from the production, "Who I'd Be," and discuss his participation.

"This is such a big, huge character but I approach it honestly," Petersen said of his take on the iconic, green-skinned ogre. The married father of a baby girl shared about how he recalls his crush on a 6th-grade classmate during the scene where Shrek removes his knight's helmet for the first time before the lovely Fiona.

It takes 90 minutes and two make-up artists to prepare Petersen before each performance. He recounted how he "enjoyed" the process of developing the tour after being in the Broadway production, with Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori on hand "every day" to re-work songs and dialogue. The touring production includes a new song, "Forever," sung by a massive puppet of the dragon that protects Princess Fiona's tower.

Petersen also elaborated on the "definite" GLBT appeal to be found in Shrek The Musical. "Shrek and Fiona both ultimately realize 'I'm OK with who I am' despite their differences," he said. The star cites the show's production number "Freak Flag," in which all the fairy tale creatures sing of the culture-changing power they can draw from their uniqueness, as being particularly relevant to GLBT theatergoers.

Finally, DreamWorks Animation production designer Guillaume Aretos spoke about his consultative role in adapting the original film for the stage. "The design is at the service of the story," Aretos said, whether working in film or theatre. He is currently hard at work on the Shrek prequel, Puss in Boots. Antonio Banderas will reprise his vocal performance as the feline hero in the movie, which is scheduled for theatrical release on November 4, 2011.

Be sure to see Shrek The Musical and "Let your freak flag wave!" For additional information or to purchase tickets for the tour's limited runs in San Diego or Los Angeles, visit the show's official website.

Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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