The banished fairy tale characters let their freak flag fly in the touring production of Shrek The Musical now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Below center: Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey flirts with the magnificent dragon puppet. Below bottom: David F.M. Vaughn steals the show as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad. Photos by Joan Marcus
I wanted to love Shrek The Musical because it’s an unlikely underdog. I didn’t love it.
Here you have a big Hollywood studio, DreamWorks, with a hit movie franchise (that, by the way, they pretty much ran into the ground) making its first foray onto Broadway – hoping for the success Disney had with The Lion King and Mary Poppins or that Universal had with Wicked.
So DreamWorks did what any big Hollywood studio would do in this situation: they threw money at some of the most talented people on Broadway and said, “Make us a hit.” One of the first people at whom they hurled money was Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), who then hurled money at Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole).
The team then began to form. Mendes was out but director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) was in. So was composer Jeanine Tesori of Caroline, or Change fame. Lindsay-Abaire added lyricist to his duties as book writer, and a co-director, Rob Ashford (the current revival of Promises, Promises), was brought in during the pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle.
At this point, Shrek appears to be the opposite of an underdog: a highly capitalized movie studio willing to spend whatever it takes to play with the lions and the witches on Broadway.
But money and talent don’t always add up to success. Shrek The Musical began previews at The Broadway Theatre in November of 2008 and closed a little more than a year later.
Theater snobs and know-it-alls smelled a bomb – another contrived movie adaptation conceived in dollar signs more than theatrical creativity – and that’s what they got.
For the national tour, the creative team reconvened and made significant changes, adding songs, trimming lines and characters (there are fewer fairy tale freaks on the road) and re-conceiving the dragon.
Suddenly the hit movie-based musical that seemed such a sure thing was starting over.
The Shrek now on display at the Orpehum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series is an underdog because, aside from the (very happy) kids in the audience, no one expects much from this show. And with those lowered expectations, Shrek is enjoyable.
The production labors mightily to seem effortless but doesn’t succeed. This is a hard-chugging entertainment machine crammed with cleverness, talent and appealing elements and yet it never becomes distinctive, never rises above its source material and never becomes anything more than an expensive carnival – pleasing but empty.
Disney was accused of creating Broadway-size theme park entertainments when Beauty and the Beast first hit the stage, and the same charge could be leveled here, which is kind of funny.
The whole Shrek franchise has positioned itself as the anti-Disney, the snarky, gassy, irony-filled opposite of the saccharine-sweet Disney fairy tales. But that ironic edge, especially on stage, seems desperate and overblown. Shrek the Musical includes throw-away spoofs of The Lion King, Les Miserables and Wicked, but it’s no more clever in its spoofing than The Producers or Urinetown or Bat Boy. The moment for musicals that rag on other musicals has passed. What we need now are musicals full of original ideas that can be spoofed a decade from now.
There’s nothing to spoof in Shrek except maybe the fabulous Tony Award-winning costumes by Tim Hatley (who also designed the sets). Hatley also created the superb dragon puppet (which takes four puppeteers and is voiced by the wonderful Carrie Compere).
Tesori’s music is appealing in the moment then vanishes. Lindsay-Abaire’s book has flashes of cleverness, and there’s even some heart in Act 2 when the Shrek/Princess Fiona romance begins to kindle. Their love duet, “I Think I Got You Beat,” is just like Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” except with more farting and belching.
The performances (when the sloppy sound design actually lets you hear what the actors are saying) are sweet and funny, especially the lead performance by Eric Petersen as Shrek. Even encased in a green body suit, Petersen captures the gruff, lovable essence of the ogre.
Haven Burton as Princess Fiona is a game comedienne and a wonderful singer, and the energetic Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey emerges as the kids’ favorite. David F.M. Vaughn as Lord Farquaad pretty much steals the show – part of that is his performance and part is the fact that he performs on his knees in a hilarious costume contraption that emphasizes his characters’ diminutive nature.
With so much to enjoy, it’s really a shame that Shrek is such an ogre-achiever. All that money, all that talent and such an unremarkable piece of musical theater.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Shrek The Musical continues through Jan. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.