Review: “Shrek” gorgeous, funny and sweet

You can’t do a show about an ogre small. At least Theatre Lawrence doesn’t seem to think so, as it pulls out all the stops for its lavish, extravagant production of “Shrek: The Musical”, which opened Friday night. Big, boisterous and over the top, “Shrek” pleases on many levels.

David Lindsey-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori ably adapt the beloved children’s film to stage with catchy songs and witty dialogue, much of which is lifted straight from the movie. All your favorite lines are there, including ogres being likened to onions and Lord Farquaad’s (John Robison) “Muffin Man” exchange with Gingy the Gingerbread Man (Skye Reid).

“Shrek” gets off to a slow start, with a long, background explanation of the titular ogre’s (Knute Pittenger) childhood, followed by the exile of the various fairy tale characters, which isn’t nearly as funny as it is in the film. This is as much due to Lindsey-Abaire’s script as it is to director Doug Weaver’s staging – there just isn’t a whole lot for the characters to do in these early scenes, although a gag with Pinocchio’s (Denis Tyner) nose growing when he lies is well executed. Once Shrek gets going on his quest to rid his swamp of these refugees and meets the overly extroverted Donkey (Jake Leet), the show picks up nicely and becomes quite entertaining.

Ironically for an outrageous musical comedy, the best songs are the ballads. “I Know It’s Today”, sung by Young Fiona (a terrific Josephine Pellow), Teen Fiona (Abby Sharp), and Fiona (Maggie Gremminger), it tells the story of the imprisoned princess growing up, fantasizing about how she will one day be rescued, and the eternal disappointment of it not happening. It’s a poignant piece rendered well by all three singers.

Likewise, Shrek’s “Who I’d Be” and “When Words Fail” are deeply revealing numbers that humanize the monstrous character. The former is a soaring piece wherein he dreams of being a hero instead of a hideous beast. The latter is a plaintive love song to Fiona, wherein he drops all his shields only to be tragically disappointed.

Pittenger seems to take his cue from these songs. His Shrek isn’t particularly ogre-ish. He complains a lot, but he’s not especially brutish. Rather, he’s a brooding, sad soul, who yearns for more than he has. When his feelings come to the surface, Pittenger unleashes them with beauty and grace – perhaps not what one expects of the character, but it is captivating. In particular, his lilting tenor voice is exquisite on “When Words Fail”.

The show is stolen in equal measure by Leet and Robison. Leet continues to develop into a fine young, comic actor, and he is at the top of his game as Donkey. He hurls himself around the stage with total abandon, has precise comic timing, and sings his bluesy numbers with a perfect jazz growl. “Make a Move”, a terrific soul piece, wherein Donkey recognizes Shrek and Fiona are falling in love, is his best song, and it’s a highlight of the second act.

Likewise, Robison is delightfully over the top in his rendering of the narcissistic, height-impaired Farquaad. To accomplish the joke that Farquaad is overly short, Robison plays the part on his knees, with puppet legs attached to a harness. The visual effect is hilarious, and Robison revels in the ridiculousness of it all. No sight gag is, if you’ll excuse the pun, too low for him, and he is a joy to watch every moment he is onstage.

Leet’s and Robison’s performances notwithstanding, the real star of “Shrek: The Musical” is its production crew. Phillip Schroeder’s set is glorious. Giant pieces such as a tree large enough to contain a home and a castle façade bring the faraway land of the setting to life. Computer projections on the back wall scrim take us to Shrek’s swamp, a fiery tower, and the idyllic city of Duloc. During one scene, the moon gradually rises at night. And the technical highlight of the show is the appearance of a 25-foot, singing and dancing dragon animated by four puppeteers.

Weaver makes good use of the set pieces and the stage, ably demonstrating what an imaginative director can do with Theatre Lawrence’s gargantuan, new space. Fiona’s tower moves on and off. Shrek’s home moves on the revolve to change perspective. And when the dragon makes her big entrance, it is pure theater magic. This is easily the biggest production in TL’s history, and Weaver doesn’t waste any of the opportunities the facility provides.

In addition to the set, the costumes by Swamptastics (a brief Google search didn’t reveal who this is) are spectacular. Pittenger looks exactly like his animated counterpart. Leet is covered from head to toe in fur, and his hands are hooves. Farquaad and his minions are clothed in exceptional royal finery. Pinocchio has a nose that actually grows. The entire cast is clothed as little wooden robots for the welcome-to-Duloc scene meant to invoke images of Disneyland. “Shrek” is gorgeous to look at.

There were a few technical difficulties. Tyner’s microphone kept feeding back, likely due to the prosthetic nose he was wearing, and the back wall projector misfired a few times. Overall, though, the production aspects of the show were stunning.

“Shrek” runs a little long. There’s no fluff in the script, but it isn’t a short story, and that can strain little ones’ attentions. Also, parents should be warned that, like the movie on which it is based, “Shrek: The Musical” over-relies on bathroom humor, particularly during Shrek and Fiona’s sophomoric duet, “I Think I Got You Beat.”

But if you don’t mind that sort of thing, “Shrek: The Musical” is a holiday treat worth seeing. A fantastic production, it really raises the bar for future shows at Theatre Lawrence while sneaking in a pretty good message about believing in oneself, some catchy songs and a lot of laughs.


Megan Spreer 9 years, 6 months ago

My family was lucky enough to catch this performance on Saturday. Maggie Gremminger was absolutely charming as Princess Fiona and we loved the energy she brought to the stage. It's a fabulous show!

Jeff Blair 9 years, 6 months ago

The Swamptastics, as was written in the programme, are Jane Pennington, Jill Stueve, Linda Ballinger and Eleanor Patton. They did a fantastic job. As does everyone associated with the production.

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