by Eric Paolini
Thursday night was opening night for a four day, six show run of Shrek the Musical at Three Stages. The adaptation of Dreamworks signature film includes all of the favorite characters that from fairy tale lore the film did. But do not expect to see exactly what you did on screen. The differences are apparent right from the start with an explanation of how Shrek and Fiona each received their first lumps from life. The new beginning sets up each character and makes them a bit more believable.
The performance is light-hearted and fun which carries to the audience. It's big and bright with great visuals. The intimate feeling of the 850 seat theater only helps in creating energy.
Unfortunately, after a fine opening number, the musical stagnates a bit. Mainly because of the diminished role Fiona plays in the beginning. Whitney Winfield as Princess Fiona is easily the best part of this musical. Her energy and charisma are constantly present giving the vivacious tone you would expect from this musical.
When left to Shrek, and eventually Donkey, to propel the story along it feels a bit plodding. Perry Sook and Jeremy Gaston were forced to impossibly fill the comedic shoes of their film counterparts. Sook and Gaston didn't have the comedic timing and chemistry that Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy had. Using much of the same dialogue when operating between songs as in the film, the difficulty of reenacting the strong comedic voices shows. The charisma and stage presence Gaston displayed as Donkey fell flat for me. The separation between him and one of the greatest comedians was too tough for me to get over. However, I was certainly the minority in the crowd. They enjoyed this version of Donkey just the same.
What ultimately separates Winfield's performance from Sook's and Gaston's was she made Fiona her own. This is why she is responsible for the two best songs of the night, "I Know it's Today" from the first act and "Morning Person" from the second.
The surprise of the night was the chemistry between Fiona and Shrek. After the first act left me slightly disappointed because of the rapport of Shrek and Donkey wasn't otherworldly (a testament to Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy and not a slight to Sook and Gaston), Fiona and Shrek sang "I think I Got You Beat". It was Shrek's best performance. That was until the fart jokes.
The ending to a sweet and charming song was an avalanche of competing farts and belches. Which, once again, I was in the minority of enjoyment. The attempted humor is my biggest complaint of the night. The original film, while certainly not subtle, did a much better job weaving in pop culture references. The musical doubled down on the references and spread them wildly, especially during the second act. Including one stretch when Lord Farquaad made references to 300, Dirty Dancing, Scarface, Carly Rae Jepsen, and the shake weight in just a matter of minutes. But the reference that topped all others was an apparent ripoff of The Princess Bride.
While the humor and broad strokes didn't work for, the nuanced aspects certainly did. The live theater aspect in it of itself is enough to maintain interest throughout the two and a half hour performance. The transitions from scene to scene is mesmerizing for me. As well as the decisions in lighting, curtains, and costumes. The costume adaptation worked surprisingly well given the difficulty of having animated source material.
The performance is light hearted and fun which carries to the audience. It's big and bright with great visuals. The intimate feeling of the 850 seat theater only helps in creating energy.
The adaptation to musical worked because the decisions on what to cut out, tweak, or create were made correctly. A slight backstory into Shrek's character and an increased role for Lord Farquaad were both positive surprises. Lord Farquaad's presence in the first act gave a sense of energy and humor that was needed. It should have been dialed back in the second act instead of doubled down, however.
Ultimately, the humor is the most important aspect of Shrek the Musical. The broad, over the top, intended for all ages comedy is the focal point for most of the musical. While the comedy is over the top, it isn't unbearable. There is enough nuance, and enough Fiona, for the musical to be an ultimately enjoyable experience.
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