A Not So Ugly Ogre

Courtesy of Shrek the Musical

Once upon a time, in a land called “Broadway” far, far away, theater legends such as Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Andrew Lloyd Webber created original masterpieces that continued to wow audiences for generations. The shows were creative, the casts talented and performances magical.

Then, one day, the people of Broadway lost their creativity, and decided to use the plots of movies as the basis for new musicals.

Eventually, original stories became scarce, and it was common to see half the opening musicals on the famed street based on popular films. This trickled down to the movies one would never expect to see on stage, including “Shrek the Musical.”

Yes, you heard me correctly. “Shrek.” The musical.

Based on the popular children’s movie about an ugly ogre who finds true love with a beautiful charming princess, “Shrek the Musical” ran for about 12 months on Broadway until its closure in 2010. Currently, the National Tour cast has been performing at several venues nationwide, including the Sergestrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

As a musical theater buff, I was expecting the worst show that ever existed. There were so many obstacles to overcome in the adaptation from movie to musical that I had very little confidence in the execution. How could such a popular animated children’s film be adequately transformed into musical magic suitable for all ages? Questions like this one were one of many I pondered as I waited for the play’s opening night.

Yet, for the amount of disparity I prepared myself to experience, I was actually pleasantly surprised: “Shrek the Musical” was a good show.

Not great. Not terrible, but a solid good. Who would have thought that anyone could have managed to tackle and pin down such a large project? I certainly didn’t, yet there were quite a few elements that really made the show for me.

In this age of movie-musicals, nothing is done on a small scale: the mere spectacle of the show is often worth the price of admission. This was the case for “Shrek.” Though the sets themselves were below par, the technical elements of the show were spectacular. For example, as the character Pinocchio told a lie on stage, the audience actually watched his nose grow.

Or as Donkey, Shrek’s dutiful companion, has his comical encounter with the dragon, we actually experienced the dragon: made of sheer cloth and manipulated with several actors managing the dragon’s torso, the fearful fire-breather acted as a very realistic character.

The characters themselves were well-played. Shrek, played by Lukas Poost, and Princess Fiona, by Liz Shivener, were pleasant leads: not outstanding, but they were certainly well-cast performers as the infamous ogre and feisty princess with strong vocals and solid acting skills.

The standout performer was by far Lord Farquaad, played by Merritt David Janes. Not only was his performance as the over-compensating prince outstanding in comedic timing, but the technical element of transforming the actor’s average height into a rather small man was done wisely: by placing Farquaad on his knees with a billowing cape to hide his calves and feet. Rather than completely pretending that Janes was as short as his character would allow to  believe, the show highlighted the absurdity as well as simplicity of his costume through several scenes where the actor stood on his legs, making it seem as though the character was, in fact, flying.

Another great aspect of the show was the acknowledgement of a plethora of classic musicals through various references, almost as if Shrek was respecting the musical theater elders of yesteryear. Shows including, but not limited to, “Dreamgirls,” “Wicked” and “West Side Story” were nodded to throughout the performance. This added a humorous touch that was well-appreciated by many theater veterans in the audience.

Of course, it’s hard to completely love the show because, well, it’s “Shrek.” Even though the show was well-executed and cast great, I was still a little uneasy at the fact that I was watching the movie “Shrek” with some musical numbers added. The movie itself should have ended after the first, but instead, the franchise continued to multiply until several sequels and video games were created.

The lack of creativity in modern musicals is almost overwhelming. In an age where the new musicals “The Addams Family” and “The Little Mermaid” are just as, if not even more, popular than great modern originals such as “The Scottsboro Boys” and “The Book of Mormon,” it’s hard to find a newly cultivated story. As enjoyable as the experience of watching your old favorite tale on stage is, I prefer to watch new and challenging storylines that take me somewhere unexpected rather than on a familiar path.

“Shrek the Musical” was good. Not great because of the lack of originality for the performance concept, but not terrible, considering it was working with one of the most well-known movies in the past decade. My advice? If you like the movie “Shrek,” see “Shrek the Musical.” If you like original theater, don’t.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5