Before the hapless "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" started doing its accident-prone thing in an endless run of preview performances, the record-holder for costliest Broadway show was "Shrek the Musical."
The latter's $25 million price tag in 2008 seems downright puny compared to the $65 million already caught in the web of that other thing, but at least "Shrek" doesn't seem to present any dangers to cast or audience — not even the danger of being bored.
To be sure, this venture from DreamWorks Theatricals and Neal Street Productions doesn't pack quite the visual or comic punch of the 2001 DreamWorks animated movie that inspired it. Still, as the national touring production of "Shrek" currently at the Hippodrome makes plain, the musical provides a lot of good old-fashioned family entertainment, with cute (and crude) contemporary twists.
I wish the songs were as varied and telling as those used in the movie (it's not easy to churn out something on the order of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"). But there's a lot of clever stuff going on in the score created by Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics).
The movie's storyline is preserved. Shrek is an ogre whose quiet swamp is invaded by a horde of displaced fairy tale characters, banished by the pint-size Lord Farquaad (his name is just one of the work's many wink-wink, nudge-nudge, over-the-heads-of-the-kiddies touches).
To get rid of the unwanted visitors, Shrek, accompanied by friendship-starved, urban-sassy Donkey, rescues Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded castle for Farquaad. But Fiona's not exactly as princess-y as she seems, and that changes everything for Shrek. Donkey gets a lesson or two in life along the way as well.
So it ain't "Into the Woods." But at the risk of making Stephen Sondheim retch, I'd say that his brilliant musical can be mentioned alongside "Shrek," at least to the extent that they both essentially fracture fairy tales to find fresh meaning in them.
Any show that ends up preaching morals about diversity and beauty being in the beholder's eye can't be sneezed at. Then again, "Shrek" also finds breaking wind and belching hilarious, and thinks that exploding wildlife is a really great sight gag, so I wouldn't call it flawless.
But the cast, directed by Jason Moore and Rob Asford and supported by a vibrant 16-piece ensemble in the pit, is uniformly admirable.
In the title role, Eric Petersen conveys the ogre's explosive and tender sides with equal panache; he's a colorful singer, too. Alan Mingo Jr., with a grin that could light up Camden Yards, is a natural scene-stealer as Donkey. Haven Burton, who seems to have some Megan Mullally in her, has a theatrical and vocal romp as the bipolar Fiona. David F. M. Vaughn is hilarious as Farquaad, from the way he conveys the character's diminutive height to the deliciously nuanced phrasing of his solo numbers.
My favorite among the hearty supporting players: Brian Gonzales, as the Bishop, presiding over the almost-wedding of Fiona and Farquaad in a voice he must have learned from John Candy's immortal Stan Shmenge character on the old "SCTV" show. Very funny.
Tim Hatley's scenic and costume design doesn't scream money, but it offers lots of visual activity. Too bad the dragon lacks firepower and a big deus ex machina scene, like in the movie. That's a minor letdown, though, given all the show's other diversions.
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