“…’Tis love,” the fairy tales advise us, “that turns dross into gold and clods into gods.”
So it seemed appropriate that about halfway through this entrancing fairytale-themed, technicolor costume party called “Shrek The Musical,” now in its final weekend by 3D Theatricals at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, it suddenly becomes a love story that gives us a startling glimpse of true happiness.
That vision arrives when the hitherto adversarial hero and heroine of this wondrous screen-to-stage musical, adapted from the popular 2001 animated film, recognizes they just might have something in common. Never mind that this something appears to be a shared affinity for breaking wind and burping really loud.
As embodied by T.J. Dawson and Jeanette Dawson in a breezy song called “I Think I Got You Beat,” Shrek the ogre and Fiona the princess find a chemistry that’s more than merely gaseous. In the best tradition of Broadway’s usual wacky affairs of the heart, they transform glowery friction into freaky genuine charm and dewy-eyed romance.
You probably know the plot if you've seen the DreamWorks Animation movie starring Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, or read the children’s book by William Steig, or have diminutive friends living in your basement with access to your stash of DVD’s. If not, here's a quick overview without revealing too many spoilers:
The Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole,” “Good People”), who wrote the book and lyrics, tells the story of a young ogre (Jude Dawson) kicked out into the world at the age of seven, which appears to be the custom of ogres. At the same time Shrek is being sent into the world, seven year old Princess Fiona is sent by her parents to a solitary life in a dragon-guarded high castle tower, again as seemed to be customary in those days.
A couple of decades pass and Shrek’s quiet life in a swamp is disturbed by a host of classic fairytale characters (Pinocchio, The Three Little Pigs, Peter Pan, The Gingerbread Man, The Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, etc.) booted out of Duloc by its clearly disturbed and vertically challenged ruler, Lord Farquaad (Daniel Dawson), and into the swamp of Shrek.
Not fond of the company, the ogre heads to Farquaad's castle, along with new motor-mouth friend Donkey (Cornelius Jones, Jr.) to plead with the cruel and fey ruler. The short-tempered Farquaad agrees to give Shrek the deed to his swamp if he rescues the sassy (and available) princess Fiona (who’s not always so cooperative), and bring her back to marry the diminutive monarch so that he can officially be the king of Duloc. Unbeknown to Farquaad, Fiona has been cursed. She needs to find her one true love to break that curse, which turns her into an ogre every night.
Directed and Choreographed by David F.M. Vaughn, with a score by Jeanine Tesori (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline or Change”), this Broadway version of DreamWorks Theatricals and Neal Street Productions’ “Shrek The Musical” is definitely a cut above most other offerings in the cartoon-inspired musicals by Disney, with all the virtues of a comprehensible plot and identifiable characters.
The biggest difference between the film and the musical is the fact that Shrek the film draws heavily on popular music, but the musical relies on the music of Ms. Tesori, resplendent with soaring interludes, and matched well with Lindsay-Albaire’s lyrics, which contributes in large part to what makes the show so exultantly triumphant. A fifteen-piece orchestra, led by Conductor Julie Lamoureux, performs the score in the popular Cerritos theatre with much gusto and flourish.
All through the show, the pop-cultural jokes and “Fractured Fairy Tales”-like spoofery that are the currency of “Shrek” pass mile-a-minute and in the wink of a mischievous eye, provoking a constant chuckling roar from the audience. Morals about inner beauty and self-esteem are amplified into power ballads with lyrics explaining that “what makes us special makes us strong.”
A big part of the pizzazz on stage is due to Tim Hatley, who did the original Broadway scenic, costume, and puppet designs. All of this color and charm is now set in motion by the direction and choreography of 3D Theatricals expert production team. One of the prerequisite tap numbers in the show, for instance, is Fiona’s big showstopper, the second-act curtain raiser, “Morning Person,” where Fiona sings of the joys of the day with a bi-polar enthusiasm that crushes literally everything in her path, i.e., ripping off the antlers of a deer or decibal-bursting a chirping bird in song.
Then, what begins as something demure, like tap dancing rat slippers behind a curtain, in a flash becomes a complete chorus line of Ann Miller-like tap dancing rats in a vigorous number that accompanies some fancy footwork and strong vocal belting by Princess Fiona. Ms. Dawson (real wife to T.J. Dawson) really nails the attitude of the strangely unorthodox fairytale princess admirably. A performer of eight-cylinder energy and eye-searing presence, her singing is scintillating, her bubbly personality fills the theatre, and she immediately bonds with on-lookers.
As the title character Shrek, the misanthropic lime-green ogre who learns to love (exemplified by the talented T.J. Dawson), he becomes so real, even though encumbered with an ample supply of padding and prosthetics, that your instinct is to rush the stage and tap his head to see if he’s really in there. T.J.’s portrayal brings both a durable accent and robust set of pipes to the role. His ability to articulate with precision all through “Who I’d Be” while maintaining his character’s accent is impressive. This song and “When Words Fail” are imbued with a great sense of passion, echoing up from deep inside a vulnerable cavern in Shrek’s heart. “Build Me a Wall” is also a forceful number that T.J. really layers his anger into before wowing the crowd with a striking belt and sustain at the end.
The apparent chemistry Shrek shares with Princess Fiona grows ripe from the moment they begin to see eye to eye. Starting with a burbling hostility in “I Think I Got You Beat,” the pair quickly falls in sync with each other’s strange habits, and by the end of the song, it’s infatuation. And when their voices reunite for the “Finale” in act two, it genuinely reflects true love shared between their characters. But no wonder Shrek falls in love with her. Fiona is pure fun. And when Shrek responds to her, you realize that there’s a winner inside that fright suit.
Also starring is Shrek’s constant companion — the fetlock-limped, sassy sidekick Donkey, played exquisitely by Mr. Jones — who appears to be having such a great time in his furry coveralls that it reminds one of a hirsute Little Richard at the Mardi Gras. With cheeky little ad-libs between scenes, Mr. Jones steals the spotlight both entering and exiting scenes. Saucy and savvy, he really lays into the vocal calisthenics of “Don’t Let Me Go,” in a fast-paced number set with urgency. The sturdy harmonies shared with Shrek for “Travel Song” is simply too much fun, and his jazzy bigtime rhythm & blues “Make a Move” really puts the icing on the cake. Busting insane dance moves all over the place, Mr. Jones makes this Donkey’s signature number without a doubt.
The evil, psychologically maimed Lord Farquaad, (Daniel, the very droll and normally tall brother to T.J.) walks on his knees the entire show with tiny fake legs dangling before him — a very funny sight gag employing countless inventive variations. Men of Daniel Dawson’s personality are in short supply, making him a solid fit for the diminutive Lord Farquaad. His rich robust voice for “The Ballad of Farquaad” creates a house full of energy, but it’s his animated performance in the hot-shot dancing number, “What’s Up, Duloc,” that makes Daniel’s portrayal of his obnoxious, egomaniac character all the more memorable.
Considering the whole phalanx of bedtime-story archetypes, led by a reedy-voiced Adam Mantell as Pinocchio, this real-boy wannabe has a sarcastic spirit that translates well into his singing voice for “Story of My Life.” Also featured strongly is The Sugar Plum Fairy (Dayna Sauble), decked out in sparkly electric shades of pink, triple-roling as Queen Lillian and Gingy, and managing a perfect falsetto voice for the gingerbread character. Her bold pipes and trills really shake the house down for “Freak Flag” as she leads the ensemble in this empowering number.
The ensemble characters (many playing multiple roles) also feature Keith A. Bearden, McKenna Bisaha, Natalli Dorn, Madeline Ellingson, Kyle Frattini, Kenny Gary, Chris Hunter, Rachael Johnson, Mia L. Jones, Colden Lamb, Timothy H. Lee, Robert Ramirez, Allison Sheppard, Alyssa M. Simmons, Landen Starkman and Rodrigo Varandas. All impeccably perfect in their spunky, high-spirited roles.
Kudos to the Wig and Makeup Design team of Peter Herman and Denice Paxton for making Sugar Plum Fairy and Pinocchio look like something out of this world. A quintet of costume dressers outfits the cast of 26 in clever and diverse regalia to look their fairytale best. For example, exuberant, woodsy layers for the fabulous Peter Pan, gorgeous glitter laced into the Wicked Witch’s culotte, and earthy, matching colors for The Three Little Pigs, etc.
Director Vaughn’s transitions and use of three-way entries make “I Know It’s Today” a magical number as debuting Sloane Adams plays Young Fiona, and Noelle Lidyoff depicts Teen Fiona, helping Ms. Dawson shift through her years in the tower.
But the passionate Amber J. Snead is starting a revolution all her own as the Dragon. Not discounting the fact that Ms. Snead blasts her sonorous vocals as Mama Bear during “Freak Flag,” and “Story of My Life,” and as Mama Ogre during “Big Bright Beautiful World,” her feature number is “Forever.” With a radiant soulful sound fiery enough to shame the boiling lava of the dragon’s keep, Ms. Snead really belts out her vocal prowess, packing a powerful punch all through the song. With sass, class, and a whole lot of brass, Ms. Snead reigns supreme in this cameo role.
Puppeteers also deserve a nod for inspired performances with “Gingy,” “Puss N’ Boots,” (by Pro Puppet Makers, Inc.) and other puppetry in the show, including the amazing realistic Dragon (Christian Anderson and Derek Lux), who manages to channel the Dragon’s movements perfectly during the song “Forever,” replicating fluid sweeps all across the stage.
Be sure to check out this big bright beautiful world that 3D Theatricals has crafted with their production of “Shrek The Musical.” Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. Remember, Shrek plays through this Sunday only! Tickets may be purchased online at https://3dtheatricals.org/tickets/current-season/
Once in a while, Broadway comes up with a show that’s just not like the others. In fact, maybe I’m just better placed to notice it now, but the musical seems to champion minorities, and cultural differences — even more so than the film did. It made me think about how radical Shrek was and is, as a story that actively champions authenticity and ugliness above beauty and power, one that opens with a marginalized community being driven from their homes and ends with that community seizing their home back, on their own terms, without shame.
Ultimately, though, “beloved” ends up being a good descriptor of this musical, managing to capture what made the source material so fiercely loved without diminishing it — at the end of the performance, it scored a standing ovation from kids, boomers, and cynical youth alike. I laughed, I cried; I refreshed my email eagerly with the news, sparking new memes.
I guess what I’m saying is — I’m a believer. There’s not a trace of doubt in my mind. If you have the opportunity, it is highly recommended to go see this show while it’s here.
The Show Report