Monday, July 18, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Shrek Isn't Dreck

I notoriously (according to many who read my original review) referred to the 2001 animated movie Shrek oh-so-poetically as "dreck." While it became an enormous hit and spawned three sequels (Shrek 2 being, in my opinion, a vast improvement over the first), I found the original an obnoxious fairy tale farce that relied almost solely on potty humor and Disney-bashing for its raison d'etre.

Subsequently, I was far from enthused when I heard DreamWorks was turning its cash cow into a Broadway musical, hoping to follow in the footsteps of rival Disney's ├╝ber-successful stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Then I saw the original cast perform Lord Farquaad's showstopper "What's Up, Duloc?" on the 2009 Tony Awards broadcast. I was impressed. Then I bought the original cast recording, which proved to be filled with witty, inventive songs by David Lindsay-Abaire (an unexpected follow-up to his very serious, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole) and the gifted Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change). I was even more impressed.

This past week, I was able to attend the Los Angeles opening of Shrek The Musical and see the complete work for the first time. Color me totally impressed! I highly recommend it — now playing through July 31 at the famed Pantages Theatre — to theatergoers young and old. There are still a few fart jokes and jabs at Disney, but the more-subtle musical benefits from a decidedly more lyrical, romantic approach. That and having human beings rather than computer-generated images fill the key roles give Shrek The Musical a massive advantage over its celluloid roots (although the film and musical are ostensibly based on stories written by the late William Steig).

Shrek, for the two people on the planet who haven't heard of the character, is a solitary, swamp-dwelling ogre who suddenly finds his muddy home overrun by fairy tale creatures including Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs and others evicted from the nearby kingdom of Duloc by the diminutive, perfection-obsessed despot, Farquaad (played, predominantly on his knees, by the hilarious David F.M. Vaughn). Shrek (beautifully portrayed and voiced by Eric Petersen) sets out for Duloc, with a talking Donkey (a great-in-small-doses Alan Mingo, Jr.) at his side. Confronting Farquaad, Shrek is promised the deed to his property if he first rescues the long-imprisoned Princess Fiona (the hilarious Haven Burton) and delivers her to Duloc so Farquaad can marry her and make himself a legitimate king.

Splendid stagecraft ensues, with one visual delight after another. In addition to the great costume designs (by Tim Hatley) that enable Farquaad to appear only a few feet tall, the show features a talking Gingerbread Man, a flying dragon, a horde of tap-dancing rats, and a cameo by the Shrek movies' Puss in Boots. The touring production is co-directed by the clever Jason Moore, who previously supervised the puppet-based Avenue Q, and Rob Ashford of the recent Broadway revival of Promises, Promises among other credits. Superb if fairly minimal choreography is provided by Josh Prince.

Tesori's and Lindsay-Abaire's more than serviceable score is comprised of several gems, most noticeably Shrek's delightfully cynical opening number "Big Bright Beautiful World"; Fiona's wistful "I Know It's Today" (performed by the character at three different ages) and energetic Act II opener, "Morning Person"; any of Lord Farquaad's songs; the dragon's R&B tuner "Forever" (which replaces her previous song "Donkey Pot Pie," heard on the Broadway cast recording); the toe-tapping, GLBT instant anthem "Freak Flag"; and the climactic, proscenium-crossing "This Is Our Story." And for fans of the original movie, an encore cover of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" performed by the show's vocally gifted cast is included.

Shrek The Musical will be touring extensively over the next year. Wherever it plays, I encourage locals to check it out, whether or not you are fans of the movie. You'll have a good time either way. Tour information may be found at the musical's official site.

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

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