I've had an insanely busy week, so I'm just now sitting down to finish up my review of Shrek the Musical, which I caught an early preview of on my last trip to New York. Right now, I'm down in Provincetown, Mass. to perform in a couple of concerts with the Boston Gay Men's Chorus as part of the town's annual Holly Folly event. (If you happen to be in town, we have two performances on Saturday, December 6th at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House.) Being away from Boston makes me feel a little less guilty about taking the time out to blog.
As I said, I saw an early preview performance of Shrek, and from what I understand, there are changes afoot. In fact, the producers recently canceled the show's December 2nd performance to give the cast and creative team some breathing room to institute some major changes, so I have to couch my views in the fact that I saw the show prior to said changes.
Overall, I liked what I saw. The show was in reasonably good shape in terms of the book, the performances, and the pacing, but its major liability was a score that lacks any boffo numbers. The opening number, "Big, Bright, Beautiful World," certainly serves its purpose, and Fiona's "wanting" song, "I Know It's Today," is not without its charms. Composer Jeanine Tesori serves up numerous serviceable tunes, and many of David Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics are witty, even at times inspired. Each song serves an effective dramatic purpose, but there really isn't any number that sticks in the mind, at least not for long.
After some well publicized casting difficulties, the show has settled in with an appealing and talented crew of principals. There were a few changes after the Seattle tryout, including a new Donkey and changes in the Dragon character. Kecia Lewis-Evans was originally hired to provide the voice of the Dragon, but she was let go, and the Dragon's vocal parts were relegated to the female chorus. The result is vocally indistinct and dramatically ineffective, plus the "costume" looks like something out of "A Bug's Life," with the female chorus donning various leaf-like shells that I guess are supposed to be the Dragon's scales, but the effect is inscrutable. Perhaps this is one of the things they'll be changing. One hopes.
As for the new Donkey, Daniel Breaker is an inspired choice. Breaker, who brought Stew's younger self to electrifying life in the late and lamented Passing Strange, succeeds here in a part that couldn't be more different from his Passing Strange character, and yet he brings a similarly subversive quality to both.
At first, I wasn't sure that Brian d'Arcy James was the right choice for the Shrek role, but James turns in a dynamic and sympathetic performance, despite the bulky costume and green prosthetics. Christopher Sieber is an absolute hoot as Lord Farquad, and gives a suitably camp and larger-than-life performance. Sutton Foster brings her deft gift for comedy to the Princess Fiona role. The only slight disappointment is John Tartaglia as Pinocchio, but only because this super talented guy doesn't have more stage time.
The show works best when it's not trying to ape the success of the the original "Shrek" movie. Quite a few of the lines from the movie are falling flat on stage, including a number of Eddie Murphy's priceless Donkey ad libs. The creators also seem to be relying too much on the "Oh, everyone's seen the movie" factor. There are a few too many times during the show during which, if you hadn't seen the movie, you'd be confused. For example, during a song at end of act 1, Fiona inexplicably shows up in green ogre makeup. Fans of the movie will understand why, but the guy sitting next to me, who had never seen the movie, was lost.
When I saw the show, there were a few stage sequences and transitions that weren't quite working yet. For instance, during the scene in which Farquad charges Shrek and Donkey with rescuing Princess Fiona, rather than tell the characters what they actually need to do, Farquad turns to one of his underlings and says, "Fill them in and show them out," which is a rather lazy dramatic device. And the complex escape from the Dragon's lair included some quizzical elements. At one point, the main characters are being pursued by skeletons, and we never learn why, or where these skeletons came from. Then, for no apparent reason, Shrek and Fiona temporarily turn into skeletons as well. Whah? Also, at the climax of the show, there were two crucial moments that weren't quite soup yet, including Fiona's transformation, and Lord Farquad's...um...just desserts?
Again, hopefully, those are some of the rough spots that the creative team will be trying to smooth out as the show makes its way towards its December 14th opening. There's certainly plenty here to enjoy already, including numerous humorous references to iconic Broadway shows, such as Gypsy, A Chorus Line, and Wicked. And whereas the "Shrek" movies poked fun at Disney films and characters, Shrek the Musical aims a few barbs at Disney stage shows, which is certainly apt. Because, despite its flaws, Shrek has more heart and less pointless spectacle than any of Disney's Broadway fun rides, past or present.