Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 14, 2008
Shrek the Musical Based on the DreamWorks Animation Motion Picture and the Book by William Steig. Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Jason Moore. Choreographed by Josh Prince. Scenic & costume design by Tim Hatley. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair/wig design by David Brian-Brown. Make-up design by Naomi Donne. Puppet design by Tim Hatley. Music direction & incidental musical arrangements by Tim Weil. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Cast: Brian D’Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Christopher Sieber, John Tartaglia, and Daniel Breaker; Cameron Adams, Haven Burton, Jennifer Cody, Bobby Daye, Ryan Duncan, Sarah Jane Evermman, 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 Riegler, Noah Rivera, Heather Jane Rolff, Jennifer Simard, Rachel Stern, Dennis Stone, David F.M. Vaughn.
Lest you think I’m risking nothing with this proclamation, as the show’s competition aside from Disney’s delightful 1994 hit has been largely limited to more feeble-minded and theatrically bereft sectors of The Mouse’s oeuvre, you’re right. But both Dreamworks and the creative team, writers David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) and director Jason Moore, would probably accept this with no small amount of honor. After all, they haven’t taken any chances, either.
The sprawling success and eye-gorging beauty of this production must be attributed entirely to Dreamworks’s cinematic vision of William Steig’s 1990 children’s book, and not to the keen theatrical minds who’ve brought it to Broadway. So completely have Moore, Tim Hatley (set, costume, and puppet design), David Brian-Brown (hair and wigs), and Naomi Donne (makeup) replicated the film, that it seems as if every production meeting must have depended on a TV set, a DVD player, and a remote control bearing an industrial-strength pause button.
The offkilter outhouse from which the lovably disagreeable ogre Shrek (Brian d’Arcy James) makes his first appearance. The look and sound of his talking donkey sidekick (Daniel Breaker, in a prancingly poised interpretation of Eddie Murphy’s voiceover work in the film). The elongated appearance and grotesquely contrasting voices of the fairy-tale characters who are forcibly relocated to Shrek’s swamp home - particularly Pinocchio, whom John Tartaglia treats (as Cody Cameron did in the movie) as an old LP being played too fast.
Shall I continue? The stumpy Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber), his game-show-host magic mirror, the large and lusty lady dragon who falls for Donkey when he and Shrek invade her lair trying to rescue Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) for Farquaad. The gingerbread man Farquaad tortures in his first appearance, down to the formation of its dented-oval, pulled sugar mouth. Princess Fiona’s explosive singing contest with a fragile bluebird. Everything is here: unadorned, unsullied, and unapologetic.
And that’s the problem. While this locked-gaze fidelity results in a live show every bit as vivid and enjoyable as the movie, it’s not searing theatre. It’s hardly even imaginative. It’s hilarious where the movie was hilarious, touching where it was touching, gross where it was gross. But it takes nothing appreciably further.
Dreamworks has granted Lindsay-Abaire a little freedom with the formula. While he’s retained the adult humor (much of it scatological) that helped make the film a comedic and commercial triumph for adults and children alike, he’s expanded its pop-culture references into the realm of Broadway (A Chorus Line, Wicked, The Lion King, Annie Get Your Gun, and Sweet Charity all get momentary shout-outs) and added vague thematic nods to self-actualization and gay liberation. Then there are the songs: Lindsay-Abaire is a facile lyricist, with an engaging, bouncy touch that cuddles nicely with Tesori’s literate-but-not-condescending tunes (closer to Thoroughly Modern Millie than Caroline, or Change in style) in creating the spry, functional, forgettable score.
All this is enough to keep the show from becoming mechanical, as Disney’s shows - with any degree of changes - have often been. But it’s not enough to bring the show to life. For that, you need people, and treating the ones it has as such is in no way this musical’s strength.
You get little opportunity to experience their unique personalities, which they’ve revealed successfully in previous roles in shows such as Sweet Smell of Success, Passing Strange, and Spamalot respectively - most of the entertainment they generate is coated in slickness. Reducing actors to anonymous costume fillers guarantees easy replaceability, a must for a production that reportedly cost $25 million. But it deprives you of their innate humanity, something Disney’s musicals accentuated even when their actors were outfitted as teapots, gazelles, apes, or fish.
When everyone onstage must be dressed and voiced in certain predetermined ways for fear of damaging The Brand, you lose the spark of immediacy that separates theatre from film in the first place. Without it and the fresh inspiration generated by rethinking things for the stage, this potential curtain-to-curtain funfest is made merely above-average and corporately cool. As Pinocchio cries once he’s been infected by Shrek’s contagious sense of self: “I’m wood! I’m good! Get used to it!” Such an exclamation is equally appropriate for Shrek the Musical itself.