Cameron Adams, Daniel Breaker, Haven Burton, Jennifer Cody, Brian D’Arcy James, Bobby Daye, Ryan Duncan, Sarah Jane Everman, Sutton Foster, Aymee Garcia, Leah Greenhaus, Justin Greer, Lisa Ho, Chris Hoch, Danette Holden, Marty Lawson, Jacob Ming-Trent, Carolyn Ockert-Haythe, Marissa O’Donnell, Denny Paschall, Greg Reuter, Rachel Resheff, Adam Rieger, Noah Rivera, Heather Jane Rolff, Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Rachel Stern, Dennis Stowe, John Tartaglia, David F.M. Vaughn
Audiences should be eternally thankful, considering the advertising slogan of the most recent film-to-musical adaptation to hit Broadway – “bringing ugly back” – that the design elements of Shrek the Musical are so aesthetically pleasing.
Though the script, songs, and actors are entirely satisfactory, it’s the eye-popping visuals from Tim Hatley, who designed the show’s sets, costumes, and puppets, that remind us of the spectacle of tastefully designed family shows that wow on an immediate surface level.
Hatley floods the stage of the Broadway Theatre, one of the largest theatres in town, with color and whimsy, particularly during a series of scenes featuring favorite storybook characters seeking to reclaim their rightful place in Lord Farquaad’s kingdom.
Shrek the Musical follows faithfully in the footsteps of the DreamWorks animated film, including many of the same gags but expanding the running time by an hour.
If adults may find the extra padding more than slightly unnecessary, the fluff that is Shrek the Musical is mostly painless. Director Jason Moore keeps things flowing at a punchy, joke-laden pace. Scatological jokes abound, most amusingly in Fiona-versus-Shrek fart-off song I Think I Got You Beat, which should amuse even the most strait-laced adults in the crowd. Moore, who directed the Tony-winning Avenue Q a handful of seasons back, is the perfect choice for Shrek, which lobs over-the-heads-of-the-kids jokes a mile a minute in the hopes of keeping the over-12 set interested, a quality that the film also embodied.
Though the show succeeds on the comedic front however, there are still a few holes in the Titanic thearical venture that is Shrek, causing gradual, unfortunate sinkage during the course of the show. Though Jeanine Tesori’s hit-or-miss score, which hits somewhat more often than it misses, is off to a catchy start with opening number Big Bright Beautiful World, there are also a string of mediocre songs throughout, punctuated by winners like the jaunty charm song Morning Person and the Springsteen-style Build A Wall. For those going into Shrek with memories of Tesori’s last main stem effort, her collaboration with Tony Kushner on the score of Caroline, or Change, this outing is a considerably less nuanced one for obvious reasons.
Book writer David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the Pulitzer for his play Rabbit Hole, could have made much more of an impression here, but he’s laden down by a sense of responsibility to the screenplay of the film. Shrek ultimately falls prey to the affliction of many a Broadway adaptation of an animated film: Imitation Syndrome. On film, the characters – as 3D-animated by the folks at DreamWorks – by sheer virtue of their originality, felt more alive than their on-stage counterparts. Here, the cast, probably at the request of the production team, feel they need to copy the animators’ visions rather than imbibing the characters with their own unique spirits.
Currently embodying the six-foot-plus jolly green title character is Broadway vet Brian D’Arcy James, a magnetic presence and robust singer who, along with a similarly vibrant cast, elevates fairly good material to above-average status. Wearing a heaping layer of prosthetics and makeup, the D’Arcy James seems unsure of his movement at times; luckily it seems strangely appropriate in the case of a man playing a character as unwitting as Shrek.
D’Arcy James isn’t the only winner in the cast. Christopher Sieber as walks-on-his-knees Lord Farquaad (a running gag that soon grows tiring) is effetely charismatic. And John Tartaglia as Pinnochio, a small but memorable presence in the show, is gangly and perfect as the ringleader of the fairy tale characters. The standout, however, is Sutton Foster, who as Princess Fiona is the only cast member to truly make her own mark in her character’s dainty shoes. She’s got just the right go-get-em spirit, combined with the akward good looks, to complement D’Arcy James’s oafish Shrek.
In the end, though, most of the cast – even the best of them, and some of them are excellent – are merely playing by the book. That’s what’s most frustrating about this musical adaptation: the Shrek formula has already been set by the animated movie that serves as source material. There’s no real deviation, no excitement in discovering new and unchartered territory for these characters in a new, song-laden form. Kids probably won’t care; they’ll just love seeing their favorite characters on-stage. But accompanying parents – despite Moore’s snappy direction – may leave wondering why Shrek really had to be an hour longer than the film, which they’ve no doubt dutifully watched with their kids more times than they’d like to count. Probably because they know, as soon as they get home, that Shrek DVD is going to get just that mite bit more worn out.