By Susan Meister
I am a Shrek innocent: I have not seen the movies or the hugely popular musical when it first appeared on Broadway in 2008. Yes, this past Sunday was my first exposure to the hulking, green figure with the comically grotesque earpieces that characterize this (by now) popular icon.
The plot is pretty complex. Shrek, being an ogre, and despite being a gentle, friendly sort, has been mocked and feared his entire life. Tired of the effect he has on people just because of his appearance, he retires to a swamp to live his life alone, away from all those who take one look at him and flee. But his solitude is disturbed when a cast of fairy tale characters, including Pinocchio, Cinderella, and the Three Pigs, raid his swamp. They have been evicted by the evil (and very short) Lord Farquaad, who has threatened them with death if they ever return. To get the villagers back their homes, but mainly to secure his privacy again, Shrek enters into a bargain with Farquaad to find the Princess Fiona in a place called Duloc and bring her back to Farquaad so he can marry her and become king. She is trapped in a castle surrounded by lava and guarded by a gigantic, fire-breathing dragon.
Along the way Shrek reluctantly gains the companionship of a talking donkey who promises to show him the way to Duloc. They indeed find Fiona, who after so many years of waiting for a handsome prince to free her, confesses in a hilarious song to be stir-crazy and perhaps even bipolar. Shrek is hardly the handsome prince she was expecting, but at that point, anyone who could liberate her will do. Shrek and the donkey manage to contain the dragon through clever derring-do, and Princess Fiona is finally in their custody. Now comes the real fun.
If you want to know the rest of the plot, you are going to have to see the musical, because the number of twists, turns, scene changes, and songs is dizzying and dazzling. Let this brief summary simply conclude by reassuring you that Everything Turns Out All Right, so the kids in the audience will leave the theater smiling.
As usual, PacRep has done a great job of putting on a complicated show, replete with great scenery design by Patrick McEvoy, including king size theatrical devices appropriate to the scale of the plot, and the cast of 25 who throughout are perfectly costumed and bewigged. The fairy tale feeling of the show persists from first to last, and while with only one exception (“I’m a Believer,” the song written by Neil Diamond and made popular by The Monkees), you are unlikely to recognize many of the tunes, the music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire are witty and fun.
The standouts in the cast are Rob Devlin as Shrek, with what I detect is a gentle Scottish accent, a definite benefit for an ogre; John Daniel, who plays a distinctly fey Donkey with a charming prance; Lara Fern, the slightly daffy Princess Fiona who knows how to belt out a princess-style command; and the excellent Scott McQuiston, who not only plays Lord Farquaad with delicious malice, but does so on his knees. His spindly, short puppet legs are critical to his character and are a continuing source of hilarity for the audience. Lara Devlin (who doubles as Lara Fern in real life) has created delightful choreography, and the costume designer, Ziona Goren, merits special commendation for Great Fairytale Outfits. Stephen Moorer is stage director.
Overall, the musical direction by Sean Boulware was perfect for the range of ages and competence his performers represented (and it was a family affair, including Michelle Boulware with her lovely voice, and their two sons).
So, should you go? The audience on the afternoon I went was largely kids accompanied by adults, and most of them were under ten, the likely fans of this play. There were some teenagers and unaccompanied adults present, but I did not check with them to see if they enjoyed the show, although I assume they did. If you have a thing for friendly ogres, this may be the show for you – it’s certainly done with excellence – but you’d probably like it a whole lot more through the eyes of your children and grandchildren. It is certainly always worthwhile to introduce children to quality theatre whenever possible, and Shrek despite having a bit of potty humor would meet this standard.
Even though as an adult I appreciated the timeless theme of the high price of being different, whether in appearance or thinking, I found the joy of Shrek in watching the kids in the audience, announcing with breathless excitement whenever they spotted a princess or a dragon or a character from a beloved fairy tale and believing, just for the moment, that they were all real.
Kudos to PacRep for taking this on, and doing it so well.
Photo by Stephen Moorer