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A CurtainUp Review
Shrek the Musical

See also, Shrek Unmasked by Elyse Sommer

Once Upon a time, there was a little ogre named Shrek, who lived with his parents in a bog by a tree. It was a pretty nasty place, but he was happy because ogres like nasty. On his birthday, the little ogre's parents sat him down to talk, just as all ogre parents had for hundreds of years before. — Voice of Shrek
Brian d'Arcy James as Shrek
(photo: Joan Marcus)
He's big, green, and ugly. He smells bad (how about using skunk as an underarm deodorant?), frightens everyone he meets, and wants to be left alone. He's Shrek, an ogre. And right now he's my choice for the most dominating leading man on Broadway.

If things go as they should, he may even get credit for bringing back the long-forgotten term "matinee idol." But let's hope it won't just be the matinee crowd that takes Shrek to their heart. Brian d'Arcy James, an extraordinarily fine actor (and good-looking, it should be noted—to prove it, see the picture in the add-on Box at the end of this review.) of great versatility, is portraying the character originally created by author William Steig in his popular children's book and subsequently the subject of a hugely successful animated film (and a sequel). He is the perfect choice.

Almost fifty years ago Mary Rodgers' fairy-tale musical Once Upon a Mattress showed us how receptive an adult audience can be to what is essentially a children's fable. Like that show, Shrek is favored with an abundance of wacky but wise wit. Notwithstanding Disney's uniquely conceived and executed The Lion King, Shrek is an example of a family show that is as accessible to perceptive children as it is accommodating to sophisticated adults. Except for Stephen Sondheim's psychologically complex Into The Woods, the realm of fairy tales has been predominantly in the care of the Disney corporation.

It is a minor miracle that this Dreamworks Theatrical production, under the splendid, if occasionally indulgent, direction of Jason Moore, doesn't either condescend to minors or compromise the show's adult perspective. It also doesn't come as a surprise that Moore, who helmed the puppet-people musical Avenue Q, would choose the gifted John Tartaglia who originated the role of Princeton in Avenue Q, to play the small but instantly winning role of the very puppet-y Pinocchio. Tartaglia's puppetry skills are also put to work with the appearance of the fearsome and (believe it or not) seductive Dragon.

If you aren't familiar with the book or the film, the most famous fairy tale characters abound although they play a peripheral role in the plot. Shrek has made a home for himself deep in the woods. His domain is threatened with the arrival of the entire fairy tale population of Duloc, all of whom — including the humorously characterized and costumed Peter Pan, The Three Bears, Ugly Duckling, the Shoemaker's Elf, White Rabbit, Big Bad Wolf and Wicked Witch— have been exiled by the evil Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber). Shrek is promised his land back if he will rescue and bring back Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) to be Farquaad's bride. On his journey he is befriended by a gregarious Donkey (Daniel Breaker), threatened by a pursuing Dragon and (could it be?) smitten by a tap-dancing princess.

What is astonishing is how much nuance and emotional variety D'Arcy James produces from under all that make-up. By the time he delivers the score's most touching balled, "Who I'd Be," to close out Act I, he has you ready to march for the equal rights of all ogres. Breaker, who gave a dynamic performance last season in the musical Passing Strange, is a real kick as the gabby sidekick Donkey. His every line becomes an innuendo and every energy-charged movement appears to have two meanings of its own.

Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Considering his villainy, Sieber provides the funniest illusion in the show by performing on his knees ("Things Are Looking Up,") with his costume designed to hide his legs so that he appears to be a dwarf. Foster, who is once again in the kind of comically empowered role she excels in (Inga in Young Frankenstein and Janet Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone) is totally beguiling as well as endearingly feisty as Princess Fiona who not only conjures up the show's most unexpectedly lively dance number (where none would ordinarily seem to fit) but sings the charming "Morning Person" for some even more unexpected results.

Enhancing as well as embracing the Shrek cartoon movie could not have been an easy task. But thanks to an extremely creative production team, this musical is alternately funny-as-can-be and heart-warming. That it is longer by an hour than the film doesn't prove to be a problem considering the addition of many terrific musical numbers. It was no less than inspiration to engage David Lindsay-Abaire to adapt the screenplay. I don't know how much dialogue he has extracted from the film, but much of it resonates with the same loopy overtones that made Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo so marvelously original. The lyrics he has written to Jeanine Tesori's lovely score are also distinguished by their sweet and comical sensibility. A departure from the stunning but more seriously defined operatic score she wrote for Caroline, or Change, Tesori's has written seventeen songsto kick up a notch what we have come to accept as traditional show music.

Between the concerted efforts of Moore, Lindsay-Abaire and choreographer Josh Prince, the musical numbers are tinged with illusions and references to other musicals, such as The Lion King, Wicked, and A Chorus Line. Among Prince's most amusing efforts is a giddy number that features the Pied Piper and his trailing entourage of tap dancing rats, and a very funny precision routine for the look-alike knights of Duloc. (think back to the knights in Danny Kaye's classic The Court Jester).

The tricky part with a show like this and with prices like this is to make sure that the escorts are as entertained as their charges. They will be.

Naomi Donne deserves honors for her make-up design. The settings and costumes by Tim Hatley and the lighting by Hugh Vanstone are in the grand old tradition of being a treat to the eyes. In fact, everything about Shrek The Musical is in the grand old tradition— a splendid musical comedy (with a meaningful message) for the entire family.

Shrek The Musical
Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Jason Moore
Cast in Alphabetical Order: Cameron Adams (Ensemble), Daniel Breaker (Donkey ), Haven Burton (Sugar Plum Fairy, Gingy), Jennifer Cody (Shoemaker's Elf. Duloc Performer, Blind Mouse), Bobby Daye (Sticks, Bishop), Ryan Duncan (Bricks), Sarah Jane Everman (Ugly Duckling, Blind Mouse), Sutton Foster (Princess Fiona ), Aymee Garcia (Mama Bear), Leah Greenhaus (Young Fiona--Wednesday, Friday, Sunday), Lisa Ho (Baby Bear, Blind Mouse), Chris Hoch (King Harold. Big Bad Wolf, Captain Of The Guard), Danette Holden (Fairy Godmother, Magic Mirror Assistant, Bluebird), Brian D'arcy James (Shrek), Marty Lawson (Ensemble), Jacob Ming-Trent (Papa Ogre, Straw), Mar1ssa O'donnell (Teen Fiona), Denny Paschall (Peter Pan), Rachel Resheff (Young Fiona--Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), Greg Reuter (Gnome, Pied Piper), Adam Riegler (Young Shrek. Dwarf), Noah Rivera (White Rabbit), Christopher Sieber (Lord Farquaad), Jennifer Simard (Queen Lillian, Wicked Witch, Magic Mirror Assistant), Rachel Stern (Mama Ogre, Humpty Dumpty), Dennis Stowe (Barker, Papa Bear, Thelonius), John Tartaglia (Pinocchio, The Magic Mirror, Dragon Puppeteer)
Swings:Justin Greer, Carolyn Ockert-Haythe, Heather Jane Rolff, David P.M. Vaughn; Dance Captain, Justin Greer
Scenic & Costume Design: Tim Hatley
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
Hair/Wig Design: David Brian-Brown
Make-Up Design: Naomi Donne
Puppet Design: Tim Hatley
Orchestrations: Danny Troob
Musical Direction & Incidental Music Arrangements: Tim Weil
Choreography: Josh Prince
Orchestra: Conductor, Tim Weil; Associate Conductor, Jason De Bord; Concertmaster, Antoine Silverman; Violins-- Jonathan Dinklage, Entcho Todorov, Sean Carney; Cellos-- Jeanne LeBlanc, Anja Wood; Acoustic Bass, Bill Ellison; Flutes, Anders Bostrom; Reeds-- Charles Pillow, Jack Bashkow, Ron Jannelli; Trumpets-- Anthony Kadleck, Bud Burridge; Trombones-- Bruce Eidem, Morris Kainuma; French Horn. Adam Krauthamer; Keyboards-- John Deley, Jason DeBord; Guitars-- Ken Brescia, Bob Baxmeyer; Electric Bass, Luico Hopper; Drums, Warren Odze; Percussion, Shane Shanahan
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street(212)239- 6200
Tickets ($41.50 - $121.50) Performances Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday & Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
From 11/08/08; opening 12/14/08; closing 1/03/10.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/11/08

Musical Numbers

Act I
Big Bright Beautiful World
Story of My Life
The Goodbye Song
Don't Let Me Go
I Know It's Today
What's Up, Duloc?
Travel Song Donkey Pot Pie
This Is How a Dream Comes True Who I'd Be
Act II
Morning Person I Think I Got You Beat The Ballad of Farquaad
Make a Move
When Words Fail
Morning Person (Reprise)
Build a Wall
Freak Flag
Big Bright Beautiful World (Reprise) Finale
Shrek Unmasked

Shrek Unmaked

by Elyse Sommer
Brian d'Arcy James
Brian d'Arcy James in non-Ogre mode
Brian d'Arcy James has appeared on enough New York stages so that most theater enthusiasts won't need proof to back up Simon's comment that underneath all that Ogre makeup is a handsome actor. But just in case, here's a picture of d'Arcy James from his last musical, Next to Normal. I've been following this talented and, yes, handsome actor's career since his show-stopping appearance as the stoker in the 1997 Tony-Award winning musical Titanic. It's a career that has encompassed outstanding performances in dramas as well as musicals therefore the way he's teased so many emotional nuances from the role of the Ogre is exactly what I expected.

While everything in Shrek the Musical revolves around the title character, the entire cast deserves Simon's praises, as do the designers. As for the show's family friendly appeal, if the Saturday matinee I attended is any indication, Dreamwork's investment is paying off. The house was packed with parents with kids ranging from toddlers to teens in tow-- as well as a few grandparents like yours truly.
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