Shrek: the Musical is an eye-popping production

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Based on the DreamWorks Animation motion picture and the book by William Steig. Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Theatre Under the Stars production. At Malkin Bowl on Tuesday, July 15. Continues in rep until August 22

Musicals work so much better with good music. In Shrek: the Musical, far too many of Jeanine Tesori’s tunes are generic. Still, director Sarah Rodgers’s production is as handsome as can be. And there’s fun to be had. Probably the most beautiful sound in the world is kids chortling, and on opening night I was sitting near a bunch of little guys of about five years old who were chortling their pants off.

Shrek: the Musical sticks pretty close to the story of the superior Shrek, the movie. When the dastardly Lord Farquaad banishes all of the storybook characters from Duloc, he relocates them in the swamp that’s home to Shrek, the ogre. Shrek wants his privacy back and he works a deal with Farquaad: he’ll rescue Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded tower and deliver her to Farquaad as his bride in return for sole tenancy of his sodden land. Shrek falls in love with Fiona, but she isn’t thrilled to find that her rescuer is smelly, bulbous, and green. She agrees to marry Farquaad.

The physical production is eye-popping. Designer Brian Ball creates gorgeous set pieces, including a forest, out of folding panels. Boldly stylized—the organic shapes feel a bit like Marimekko fabric designs—these panels appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, manipulated by winged fairies. And Chris Sinosich keeps the inventiveness going with her costume designs. Farquaad is a fashion fascist and all of his citizens dress in ensembles of blue and metallic ruby. And when Shrek’s friend, Donkey, encounters the dragon, that female beast is embodied by a troupe of women all clad in Asian-inspired garb saturated with purple, pink, and orange.

Rodgers’s production boasts some very engaging performances as well. Matt Palmer plays Shrek, and although his skin is green this time around, his voice is as golden as ever. He also delivers a nicely understated emotional performance. Lindsay Warnock bursts with tomboy charm and wit as Fiona.

And Victor Hunter very nearly steals the show as Farquaad. The character is short and Hunter plays him on his knees—as all actors in productions of this musical do—with his shins concealed by his robe and fake costume legs on his thighs. In an entertainment that pretends to champion diversity, the endless short jokes are surprisingly mean. But Hunter’s petulantly camp performance is hilarious, and despite my misgivings I found myself laughing at his playful physicality.

If only the material itself were better. The setup in Act 1 takes forever. By Act 2, the relationships between Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona are in gear, so the book improves. The songs improve, too. The wittiest is “When Words Fail”, in which Shrek ties himself in knots trying to figure out how to declare his love to Fiona. Too often, though, the songs are musically dull and thematically on-the-nose, as in “Freak Flag”: “All the things that make us special/Are the things that makes us strong.”

Still, there are the production values: crisp choreography from Julie Tomaino, lots of depth in the supporting ensemble. And, of course, this is an ogre musical, so there are snot and fart jokes. That’s what sent the little boys around me into fits. And when that kind of thing gets going, who can resist?

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