Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ugly (But Not in a Bad Way)

Shrek the Musical
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics and book by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Jason Moore
Starring Brian d’Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Daniel Breaker, Christopher Sieber, John Tataglia

Performances from November 8, 2008
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway @ West 53rd Street

James and Breaker in
Shrek the Musical

(photo: Joan Marcus)
It’s heartening to report that Shrek the Musical is not a debacle of epic proportions. This adaptation of the highly successful Dreamworks animated-film franchise starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy might be an ungainly hybrid–fitting a campy square peg into a family-friendly round hole–but monstrous cleverness keeps it afloat.

The fractured fairy tale is courtesy of William Steig, the children’s author who created the green ogre’s adventures that end when he meets the female ogre of his dreams. The movies transformed her into the lovely Princess Fiona, the talkative, mischievous Donkey became Shrek’s sidekick, and riffs on other fairy tale characters were added. So Shrek the Musical has more in common with the movies than Steig’s original creation, but that makes financial sense, since everybody has seen the three movies (with a fourth coming in 2010).

Onstage, Shrek revels in visual wit. Tim Hatley’s sets and costumes are cartoonish without being obvious and outlandish without being oppressive: especially amusing is the plethora of fairy-tale creatures drummed out of Lord Farquaad’s kingdom. Aside from Naomi Donne’s superb make-up work on Shrek, Donkey and–when she turns into a nightly ogre–Fiona, the best special effect is Farquaad’s shortness. It’s simply resourceful actor Christopher Sieber on his knees, but the variations he goes through are as hilarious as anything else in the show.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s book is unsurprisingly chockful of pop-culture and current events references (including a nod to Illinois Governor Blagojevich), and his lyrics have their dopey moments: “like donuts and diabetes.” Jeanine Tesori’s songs are perfectly passable pop fodder, yet lack a spark that would push the proceedings to a higher level of lunacy, like Eric Idle’s wink-wink nudge-nudge tunes in Spamalot.

Jason Moore (Avenue Q) guides the supreme silliness deftly, and his stars bring their A-game, the ultimate reason Shrek succeeds. Christopher Sieber’s Farquaad and Daniel Breaker’s Donkey are scene stealers extraordinaire. The always dazzling Sutton Foster is a delightful Fiona: our most charming and charismatic young stage actress proves it again here. Lastly, there’s Brian D’Arcy James as Shrek–it’s hard to believe that any other actor would be as simultaneously funny and touching beneath oodles of garish makeup, giving Shrek the Musical a decidedly human heart at its ugly green center.

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