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Chicago by John Olson

Shrek the Musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre

The third animated film-to-stage musical of Broadway in Chicago's 2009-10 season, Shrek the Musical is the first to fully be the real deal. After last winter's The 101 Dalmatians Musical (a non-Disney production, based on the original novel rather than the film, but you get my point) and Disney's Beauty and the Beast (a non-Equity tour not produced by Disney but put together by Disney's original Broadway creative team), Shrek is the only one of the three to fully deliver Broadway-caliber entertainment. Though the cast includes no celebrity stars, they are supremely confident and capable. Many of the performers played in the piece on Broadway, and all were more than ready for this opening night of the national tour. Production values are impressive—the big red dragon puppet is a particular stunner. Even the 14-piece orchestra (of three touring players and 11 hired locally) sounds much bigger than it is.

Shrek
Blakely Slaybaugh (as Pinocchio) and cast

So, for a family looking to give the kids the Broadway experience with a story they know and are more or less guaranteed to like, Shrek the Musical is a very solid and safe choice. Even so, who among musical theater lovers of any age isn't going to get some significant enjoyment out of watching some top caliber Broadway professionals knock Jeannie Tesori's likable and nicely hummable tunes out of the park? Tim Hatley's green-hued sets, effective fairy-tale animal costumes and puppetry give a heavy dose of stagecraft magic that we can all enjoy. That said, librettist David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Tesori don't quite make the case that the the popular film and children's book have been successfully re-imagined for the stage.

The score has its moments, though. The more successful songs include the solid opening number "Big Bright Beautiful World," which provides necessary exposition, a catchy melody and a showcase for the ensemble as well as the leads. The act one closer, "Who I'd Be," is an "I want" power ballad that builds enough momentum to take the audience through intermission and back to their seats for "Morning Person," Princess Fiona's second act opener. Even if that number reminds us of us Menken and Schwartz's "Happy Working Song" from the film Enchanted in its pastiche of "Whistle While You Work" and its imitators, it's a fun production number. I'll even go so far as to say some of the other numbers, like Shrek's ballad "When Words Fail" and even Fiona and Shrek's duet "I Think I Got You Beat," take us a little further into the characters' emotions and give us greater empathy for them.

But here's the but. The film's anachronistic references to pop culture, effective on screen, are here quite predictably translated to references to other Broadway musicals, including Wicked, Les Mis and A Chorus Line. And haven't we seen a lot of that already? Given the setting of the story in medieval times, with knights and such, doesn't it feel a little like Spamalot? The self-referential thing has been done to death, and it's going to be hard for the hard-core musical theater crowd to get too excited about seeing it done again.

None of that ought to diminish credit due to the performers. Haven Burton, who understudied Fiona on Broadway and carries the lead here, is just a knockout—a gifted, likable comedienne with a powerful voice. Her Shrek is Eric Petersen, the Chicago native who stood by in the role on Broadway. He has a gorgeous baritone and gives a warm if not particularly surprising or inventive take on the title character. He's hindered, though, by the Shrek mask he has to wear which shows only his face and gives him no opportunity to do the kind of expressive facial gyrations that the computer-generated film character displays. Alan Mingo, Jr. does yeoman's work as the Donkey, voiced on screen in the Eddie Murphy. It's a thankless task, but Mingo neither invites nor avoids comparisons with the inimitable Mr. Murphy. David F. M. Vaughn was promoted during previews to play the evil Lord Farquaad, and he nails the pompous little nobleman handily (he understudied the role on Broadway). Though we don't see her face until the curtain call, Carrie Compere brings down the house as the dragon with "Forever," a new song written for the tour.

Director–Choreographer Rob Ashford is credited as co-director for the tour, along with Jason Moore, who had sole credit on Broadway. Josh Prince remains credited as choreographer. The team has given the piece a flashy, snappy Broadway pace and personality. Watching the production, you know you're seeing the work of some very solid Broadway professionals who know how to give the audience a good time. The kids and families experiencing this sort of magic (for maybe the first time) won't be comparing it to Spamalot and won't be disappointed. For the rest of us, Shrek the Musical can be a perfectly good fix of our theater cravings, but it's by no means a must-see.

Shrek the Musical will play through September 5, 2010, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.


Photo: by Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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