Thursday, March 17, 2011

Theatre review: "Shrek The Musical" at Benedum Center-for broadcast Sunday 20 March 2011

Shrek the Musical is frolicking in town for a few days. This is a road company version of what, with mixed reviews, ran a little more than a year on Broadway and was much nominated for Tonys but garnered just one: for the costumes. And, yea verily, Tim Hatley’s costumes and puppets deserve the acclaim. They look great. In fact, his wonderful Dragon nearly steals the show.

Basically this is a reprise of the concept, story and dialogue of the first Shrek movie, a very clever, funny and original cartoon feature. The stage version constantly looks delightful, has plenty of great gags and first-rate performing. It has one drawback, though, songs devoid of distinction.

Here is another conversion of hit films into the kind of spectacles which only seem to sell tickets if people are constantly singing and dancing. E.g. The Producers or Spamalot wherein Mel Brooks, Eric Idle and their collaborators, not being actual, practicing composers, only came up with imitations of stock material. Of course, they didn’t need to. Their books, the playing, the style, the direction did so much so well that nobody cared.

Here, though, given the length of show and the eventual milking of gags, the absence of good songs becomes noticeable. The music is by Jeanine Tesori. She was part of the 6-Tony team which created the bigger hit Thoroughly Modern Millie. Plus she contributed to the far deeper Caroline or Change. Each of those scores has much to admire. The lyrics come from David Lindsay-Abaire who has written such quirky, imaginative plays as Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo and A Devil Inside. It sounds like a solid team, but they don’t add anything special.

FYI, should you need to know: Shrek, an ogre, who frightens most humans and accepts that he is different, has his home turf invaded by fairy tale characters exiled by nasty, Lord Farquaard. To get back his privacy Shrek, with his friend Donkey, agrees to rescue the dragon-trapped Princess Fiona so that Lord F. can marry her. But Shrek falls in love with the Princess and that has to be worked out.

The show, as the movie, sparkles with delightful bits involving such characters as Pinocchio, Gingy The Gingerbread Man and The Pied Piper. But the spotlight stays mostly on Eric Petersen’s Shrek, Haven Burton as Fiona, Donkey played by Alan Mingo, Jr and David F. M. Vaughn’s Farquaard. Peterson gives a continuously appealing performance, full of loping charm whose body language and interpretation makes him far more human than any cartoon version could ever be. Moreover, he sings superbly. Vaughn remarkably carries off the major task of playing the height-challenged Lord, which requires astounding physical dexterity, being constantly on his knees. What a kick! Burton, though, hasn’t found a way to make Fiona consistently comic, looking as if she’s stepping outside the standard princess stereotype for broad comic moments and then stepping back in. As for Mingo, he overplays Donkey, heavily pushing the braying and horsing around.

Although this contains stuff to make adults laugh, it could also appeal to kids with its sweet charm, But one number mangles that idea: the song “I Think I Got You Beat” in which Shrek and Fiona engage in a farting and belching contest. Sure, kids may think that funny. But it harms the otherwise cute integrity of the rest of the concept.

Too many gratuitous songs and dances don’t add anything except a longer running time. Brevity could have been the soul of wit. But with Jason Moore and Rob Ashford’ s lively direction, Hatley’s great sets, costumes and puppets as well the performances by Peterson and Vaughn, plus the imaginative, original ideas from the movie, this turns out to be a lot of fun.

Shrek The Musical continues at Benedum Center, downtown through 6:30 pm Sunday, March 20. 412/456-6666. or

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