Fast forward to 2001. DreamWorks movie studio releases Shrek, an animated ANTI-fairy tale about a lumbering green ogre who dwells in a fetid swamp to discourage aggressors.
He lives alone and likes it that way, but circumstances thrust him into a heroic quest accompanied by Donkey, a chattering creature with nimbus of neediness. Together, they set off to rescue a captive Princess Fiona. The film is based on a children’s book by William Steig.
“Shrek, the Musical” commences with backstory. Look, there’s little Shrek on his 7th birthday! There are no party hats in sight nor friends bearing shiny gift wrapped presents. Instead, we see Shrek’s Mom and Dad waving bye-bye to their son. According to custom, it’s time to send the little ogre out into the world to fend for himself. The rite of passage includes a sandwich and parental wisdom to-go. Mom and Dad sing:
It’s a big bright beautiful world
With happiness all around.
It’s peaches and cream
And every dream come true-oo-oo,
But not for you.
Happy Birthday, kid! Fast forward to cantankerous older Shrek (Stephen Wallem):
Yeah, your big bright beautiful world
Is all teddy bears and unicorns.
Take your fluffy fun
And shove it where the sun don’t shine.
Actor Stephen Wallem is clearly a talented actor and singer who captures Shrek’s sarcastic crude humor. Still, his character tends to pale next to Farquaad and Fiona. When he quarrels with Donkey, my sympathies go to the ass.
Fiona (Julia Murney) is not your typical fairy tale princess. She belches and farts. She lapses into bouts of self-pity. (Wouldn’t you if you were locked away for 20 years in a castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon?) She’s bossy and stubborn. Now here’s a princess we can identify with. You go, Girl!
Fiona is convinced she’ll be rescued by her own charming prince. We have our doubts. After decades of captivity, she kills time by flipping through dog-eared pages of a picture book, reciting her own version of each fairy tale.
Blah blah blah blah, poison apple,
Boring boring, evil queen,
Filler filler, been there, read that,
Seven shorties on the scene.
The witty lyrics and book (David Lindsay-Abaire) illuminate the characters. Tuneful music (Jeanine Tesori) moves them along with sparks flying out of their shoes or hooves, as the case may be. The hooves belong to Donkey (Michael James Scott).
His character projects a mélange of enthusiasm and desperation. Donkey’s more annoying habits are mitigated by the underlying vulnerability conveyed by Scott.
Murney creates a sympathetic Fiona who, by her own admission, “may seem a bit bi-polar”. The actress nails the role with dynamic well-articulated singing and acting. Her lovely voice is enhanced by the Muny sound system, which delivers fine-tuned amplification and clarity.
The visual components of the musical are equally impressive. Storybook scenery ranges from dreamy to ominous. Cartoonish costuming follows the movie’s campy designs. With projected mirror balls and other designs, the musical is a multi-media extravaganza.
Director John Tartaglia and choreographer Vince Pesce exploit the vast Muny stage with lavish production numbers that include a sizeable youth ensemble. Who wouldn’t enjoy a slew of dancing rats, fairy tale misfits and the royal guard of a snarky, pint-sized villain?
As the diminutive Lord Farquaad, actor Rob McClure is required to perform on his knees, which are concealed by clever staging and costuming. Farquaad appears to ambulate and dance on a pair of floppy faux legs. McClure is perfect.
“The Ballad of Farquaad” and other Act II songs seem superfluous. They add little to the story. One exception is the hilarious duet, “I Think I Got You Beat”. It’s a twisted version of “Anything You Can do [I can do better]”. Shrek and Fiona begin the rivalry comparing hard-luck stories and progress to competitive flatulation. We shriek with delight as the one-upmanship escalates. Sound effects are, um … realistic.
How could I forget the vibrant pink fire-breathing dragon? She is hot stuff. She sings, dances and seduces Donkey with her come-hither green eyes. Her image lingers.
I attend the show on Monday, opening night. For Monday performances only, the Muny provides interpreters for the hearing impaired. Loretta Freeman and Dan Betzler are seated, stage right under muted lighting to create little distraction, yet I can’t help noticing their artistry. While transposing the libretto into American Sign Language, their expressions and dramatic interaction create an enthralling parallel performance. Visual descriptive services are also available for the visually impaired on Monday nights. The show clocks in at nearly 3 hours.
“Shrek, the Musical” runs through Sunday, June 30, 2013 at the Muny Opera in Forest Park, located at #1 Theatre Drive, St. Louis, MO 63112.
Information is available on www.Muny.org or by calling (314) 361-1900.