Regional Reviews: Seattle
Shrek the Musical Succeeds Ogre All
Also see David's interview with John Tartaglia of Shrek
Credit the able playwright and accomplished first-time lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire for not settling for a slavish recreation of the film. Starting the show with Shrek's backstory, as a child ogre being booted from his home by his parents to face (in a well nigh perfect opening number) the "Big Bright Beautiful World" which isn't welcoming his arrival. He settles into his familiar swamp and grows to maturity in the person of rich-voiced Broadway vet Brian d'Arcy James, while in the nearby kingdom of Duloc, a host of familiar fairy tale characters led by a fey, falsetto-voiced Pinocchio (the delightful John Tartaglia) are banished to said swamp by the pint-sized and eminently scene-stealing Lord Farquaad (the dazzling Christopher Sieber, who may as well prepare his Tony acceptance speech now).
Farquaad wants to be King but must find a princess to marry. After going on a sort of royals dating game show, he chooses Princess Fiona (the ideally cast Sutton Foster), a beauty from the kingdom of Far, Far Away who has been cursed to live in a tower guarded by a fire-breathing, soul sister of a dragon. Shrek, anxious to get the fairy tale folk out of his swamp, makes a deal to rescue and bring Fiona back to Duloc to wed Farquaad and, in exchange, gain the deed to the swamp. In the company of mouthy, wise-cracking donkey (played with energy to burn by Chester Gregory), Shrek sets off, and from there the territory is more familiar from the film, but not without its twists and in-jokes about other musicals.
The second half of this version of Shrek ambles a bit too much on its way to happily ever after time for Shrek and his Princess with a secret (she transforms into an ogre herself at night). But the fixes needed for this show to be a smash seem relatively minor. Composer Jeanine Tesori has written a light-hearted and beguiling musical score, as many worlds away from her Caroline, or Change score as the songs she wrote for Thoroughly Modern Millie. And Tersori's lyrics fit Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics as perfectly as the fit of a glass slipper to Cinderella. Director Jason Moore doesn't seem quite as much in his element staging the show as he did with that pocket-sized delight Avenue Q, but he has brought out fine performances from most of his stars.
D'Arcy James, though saddled with a Shrek facial mask that nearly thwarts his warm facial expressions, is immensely likable and makes sure that Shrek remains the focal character despite all the zanier characters around him. When he sings the moving "Who I'd Be," you wish this very talented actor has, in Shrek, finally found the role to catapult him to stardom. Foster, whose rise as a Broadway leading lady is unparalleled in this era, has her best vehicle yet to showcase her zany side, as well as endearing softer moments. Tesori (Foster's Millie composer) has given her the perfect introductory number, "I Know It's Today", shared by the Young Fiona (twinkling eyed Keaton Whitaker) and Teen Fiona (Marissa O'Donnell), and a dandy act two opener, "Morning Person," which sends up a sixties type pop rock song, and allows Foster her big dance moment with the Pied Piper and a swarm of tap-dancing rats. "More to the Story" is a moving ballad, sung by Foster like a warm caress, and she and d'Arcy James giddily one-up each other in a flatulent frolic called "I Think I Got You Beat."
Sieber, well-known on Broadway and TV as an expert farceur and stellar vocalist, has two of the standout numbers with a zany big production number in "Things Are Looking Up in Duloc" and a wacky solo about his strained relations with his own fairy tale staple Dad, "The Ballad of Farquaad." Gregory valiantly tries to elude the long shadow cast by Eddie Murphy's film donkey, and is never less than pleasing and likable, but the part demands more. He is saddled with a donkey costume that looks like it came from a Halloween rummage sailand that's a pity, considering most of Tim Hatley's costumes are a whimsical delight, especially the inspired Farquaad outfits which make you actually buy that he is a short-statured fellow. Kecia Lewis-Evans knocks her vocals out of the theatre, even though her Dragon character hasn't been conceived in a way, as written, staged, or costumed, which works. Shout outs to ensemble standouts Haven Burton as Gingy the Gingerbread Man, Jennifer Cody as the Cobler's Elf, and Chris Hoch's Big Bad Wolf, who join Tartaglia's Pinocchio in a rousing act two number, "Freak Flag", which far surpasses their one-joke "The Line-Up" in act one. Josh Prince's choreography is fairly basic, jokey and unoriginal, so it's probably to the good an un-credited Rob Ashford is helping tweak things a bit.
Tim Hatley's expensive, opulent, technicolored sets are too busy at times; a bit of scaling back might be in order before the Broadway opening. Danny Troob's orchestrations are brassy and sometimes delicious, but the orchestra at the 5th Avenue need to pull back and stop drowning out the singers.
In another week, Shrek The Musical heads into the woods of Manhattan for more rehearsals and previews before a late fall opening. Broadway desperately needs new musicals with original scores by blazing talents like Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire to write them. Even now, the show succeeded in transporting me for two and a half hours. With so many prodigious talents and the Dreamworks dollars involved, I'm wishing on a star that their dreams come true.
Shrek The Musical runs Tuesdays-Sundays through September 21, at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $31-$90 (206-625-1900, 888-584-4849 or www.5thavenue.org). On Broadway: after the Seattle run, Shrek will move to Manhattan's Broadway Theatre, with previews starting Nov. 8. More information: call 800-432-7250 or visit Telecharge.com.
- David Edward Hughes