Thursday, December 11, 2008
Entertaining 'n Green
Last night I saw Shrek: The Musical, the latest in the seemingly endless stream of family-friendly movie adaptations to hit Broadway. While it wouldn't have been my first choice, my office offered us all free tickets, and I'm never one to turn down a trip to the theater. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Shrek is entertaining and smart, although the "music" part of this musical is ironically the weakest. (The show is directed by Jason Moore, with music direction by Tim Weil.) The production hews closely to the film-- and doesn't skimp on fantastical elements like rivers of lava or amorous dragons. It's to the director's credit that the production moves at a brisk pace, despite occasional slow spots, and feels focused and controlled rather than jumbled or chaotic (no easy feat when you're wrangling big costumes, elaborate special effects and sets, and a large cast). Brian D'arcy James stars as the titular ogre, whose solitary existence is disrupted by a sudden influx of fairy tale creatures banned from the Duloc kingdom by Lord Farquad (Christopher Sieber in an outstanding performance). Shrek heads to Duloc to demand he remove the fairy folk from his swamp, and winds up agreeing to rescue the Lord's would be queen, Fiona (stage veteran Sutton Foster) from a dragon guarded tower. Along for the ride is the sassy Donkey (Daniel Breaker), who is as amusingly obnoxious/ingratiating here as he was on screen. It's unfortunate that the music by Tony nominated composer Jeanine Tesori is so forgettable, but the show as a whole isn't lacking in wit or heart. David Lindsay-Abaire's book hits just the right notes of clever, adult-friendly satire and emotional depth, even if the lyrics he contributes are often as mediocre as the notes that accompany them. Still, any show that begins with a line like "This little Piggy needs some Paxil!" deserves our respect. Some may complain, as they did with the movie, that the over-kids'-heads jokes are on the wrong side of edgy, but the children I saw this with seemed totally enthralled. (And why wouldn't they be? Tots today are practically weaned on Shrek.) The show's grandeur and sense of spectacle are just excellent. From puppetry to shifting sets to fabulous costumes, the production provides a massive dose of eye candy without being gaudy. And the whole affair is bolstered by the uniformly good acting: James and the winningly quirky Foster are solid leads, though their supporters truly steal the show. Sieber delivers virtually his entire performance as the diminutive and pompous Farquad *on his knees* , with hilarious spindly legs attached to his costume. (The entertainment value of this transparent and yet effective "illusion" extends to many of the play's tricks; we may see the legs of the man steering the dragon, for instance, but we hardly care, and these behind-the-scenes peeks only add to the joy of the experience.) Even ignoring the physical exhaustion Sieber must go through, his portrayal is simply terrific. He's funny, filled with bluster and personality, and even vulnerable (the writers add a clever back-story that explains the villain's motivation). Meanwhile, Breaker accomplishes the not-easy feat of making Donkey (so memorably voiced by Eddie Murphy in the film) his own: amusing and energetic without seeming annoying. Avenue Q originator John Tartaglia is also in the cast, essaying Pinocchio, the Magic Mirror, and (as puppeteer) the Dragon, but his in-the-flesh-portrayal of the wooden boy is maybe too derivative of Mad TV's fey man-child Stuart. Still, the fairy folk are always a kick to watch, and deliver the closest thing to a gay pride anthem one could imagine in a children's musical, "Freak Flag." (The kiddies may have questions about what the Big Bad Wolf means by "cross-dressing.") By the end, we've been consistently amused and even touched by the story. I won't be running out to buy the cast recording, but I was impressed by the overall production. It's commercial, to be sure, but well produced enough to engage kids and avoid nauseating their parents.