Freaks, ogres and lowered expectations

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..
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.

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..

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.

Shrek The Musical

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.

The greening of Shrek’s Eric Petersen

EricPeterson_HR

Kermit the Frog said it best: it’s not easy being green. It wasn’t easy for Elphaba the witch of Wicked. It wasn’t easy for the Grinch (of stealing Christmas fame). And it certainly isn’t easy for Shrek, the good-hearted ogre from the swamp.

As difficult as it is for Shrek, that’s nothing compared to the challenges facing Eric Petersen (above), the actor playing him on tour in Shrek The Musical, which opens this week at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

The method of converting the amiable Petersen, who was the standby for Shrek on Broadway, into a singing ogre takes about 90 minutes. It takes a village, as they say, and the finished Shrek is the work of Tim Hatley (Tony Award-winning costume and set designer), Naomi Donne (make-up design) and Michael Marino (prosthetic make-up design). You can see the finished product below (photo by Joan Marcus).

“It’s not so bad,” Petersen says on the phone from Denver. “I can go to a Zen place while it’s being done. Sometimes I can even sleep through half of the process.”

VIDEO BONUS:
Watch Eric Petersen undergo a transformation that turns him from handsome actor to green ogre.

Previously, the closest Petersen had come to performing with much of his body and face obscured by a costume was a summer stock version of Cats some years ago.

The entire costume weighs about 45 pounds at the beginning of the show, and though much of the foam stuffing has been removed to give Petersen breathing and cooling room inside, the thing takes on an additional five pounds in sweat by the end of Act 1.

“This is definitely the most challenging thing I’ve done physically,” Petersen says. “We’ve got the routine down pretty well, but I’ll never get through a show and say, ‘Well, that was easy!’ But I’m happy to be playing Shrek and hope to be doing it for some time. But on two-show days, when I stay in make-up between shows, I think that whatever the next show is, it will be easier than this. Even if it’s King Lear it will be easier than this.”

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..

The touring Shrek is, by many accounts, a stronger show than the Broadway version. After the show closed in New York, the creative team, including directorsJason Moore and Rob Ashford, book writer/lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori all happily engaged in revising and improving the show.

Petersen was in the Broadway production (where he also played Papa Ogre and Straw Pig) and says rehearsing for the tour was like “working on a new show.” New songs, new lines and re-worked scenes made for an exciting process.

“As an actor, you want three things: you want to be working, you want to be working on stuff you’re proud of and you want to work on original material and feel like you’re being a creative influence,” he explains. “The Shrek tour wasn’t actually original, but it felt like we were working on something fresh and making it the best it could be. This show has taken some real steps forward since Broadway, and we’re all so proud of it.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Shrek The Musical runs Dec. 1-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.

ONE-NIGHT-ONLY CABARET!
Eric Petersen, along with his Shrek The Musical co-star Haven Burton will perform with Debbie Gibson and Jason Brock for a one-night-only fundraising cabaret for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The show is at 8pm Dec. 13 at Theater 39 on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf. Tickets are $35-$65. Call 415 273-1620 or visit www.helpisontheway.org for information.

An ogre sings: the creation of Shrek

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..
Eric Petersen is Shrek, Alan Mingo Jr. is Donkey and Haven Burton is Princess Fiona in the touring production of Shrek The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I write about how Shrek, the hit series of animated films, became a Broadway musical and how that musical has actually improved – according to the creative team – in its transition to a touring show.

Read the story here.

There wasn’t room in the story for all the fantastic quotes from all the key players involved, so here are, in essence the “DVD extras.”

The creative team that turned Shrek into a Broadway musical is about as A-list as it gets in the commercial theater world. Here are the team members’ thoughts on making an ogre sing.

Book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire on the appeal of Shrek:
“At the heart of this show is somebody who feels he’s one thing and is perceived to be something else. I think we all feel like that to some degree. Here’s a beastly, monstrous ogre who feels he could be a romantic hero if only people knew. And there’s a pretty, polite princess who on the inside is a farting, belching ogress. Through the course of the story, all the characters embrace their essence rather than whatever’s on the outside. It makes them happier and allows them to find happiness and love. This is a universal story. It has pre-dated us all.”

Composer Jeanine Tesori on creating the sound of “Shrek”:
“The movie had an eclectic, drop-the-needle score that included ‘I’m a Believer’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ That just worked. I tried to do the same thing but with a musical theater sound. For the character of Shrek the feel is a little Celtic, which also feels like the sound of adventure. Then there’s some R&B and pop for Princess Fiona. I aimed for a Hi-Los sound for the fairy tale characters, but that was just too many ideas on one page.”

Co-director Rob Ashford on being described by his creative team as “unflappable”:
“I always tell my friends and associates, ‘We’re living the dream.’ We couldn’t’ be luckier to work in musical theater. I consider every obstacle a challenge. I was a dancer for a dozen years in Broadway shows and have such respect for the form. I feel blessed I get to work on the scale I do. To me this is a game that really matters, and I love the challenge of it.”

Co-director Jason Moore on turning a successful movie franchise into a mega-musical:
“It’s impossible to do this, but you have to try and forget the movie and focus on the guts of the story. It’s full of heart, full of comedy. All great musicals go for one or the other. The kind of writers David and Jeanine are, they want to mine some of the emotion while still delivering comedy and spectacle. They were such a quick, facile team – one of the most amazing teams I’ve worked with.”

Co-director Rob Ashford on his favorite moment in Shrek The Musical:
“It’s at the end of Act 1 when Shrek sings ‘That’s Who I’d Be.” What’s so amazing about that moment is that he was just a hero. He saved the princess from the dragon, and he can’t even see that he was a hero. There’s something so moving about that to me. It’s such a beautiful song, and there’s something about people not seeing the truth of themselves and needing to. It’s a moment that’s so well written, so well rendered.”

Book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire on that same moment:
“I am incredibly proud of ‘That’s Who I’d Be.’ It’s a wonderful song, and I say that with all humility. We had to fight to keep it in the show. It’s a great moment for Shrek to open up his heart and let us hear what he’s longing for. It’s the purest moment of just me and Jeanine. That song, that moment didn’t exist before. It’s all us.”

VIDEO EXTRA:Here’s the original Shrek, Brian D’Arcy James, singing “Who I’d Be” on the Today show.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Shrek The Musical runs Dec. 1-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.