'Shrek the Musical' sends message that different is OK

The moral lesson in "Shrek the Musical" is that it's important to accept people who are different; and the title character, who is a green-hued ogre, definitely qualifies as different. It's easy to learn this lesson in the festive production running at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

Derived from the 2001 animated movie, this 2008 Broadway show makes sure the moral of the story is not overwhelmed by all of the colorful costumes, fairy tale complications and playground-level jokes.

The cheerful music by Jeanine Tesori thematically underscores the book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Indeed, the opening number, "Big, Bright, Beautiful World," immediately declares that this kid-friendly musical has a message to impart.

Likewise, the strength of the Toby's production is that its co-directors, Lawrence B. Munsey and Kevin McAllister, understand the importance of keeping you engaged by the three central characters.

As Shrek, Russell Sunday has the requisite physical bulk for this role, and, as importantly, the friendly personality to assure even the youngest of theatergoers that this big green monster is not really a monster.

Sunday knows how to go for broad laughs in gags relating to, er, swamp gas, but he also knows how to tone it down in order to bring out Shrek's more sentimental traits.

Shrek's sidekick, Donkey, is a motormouth character who talks a mile a minute. As Donkey, Calvin McCullough has got that fast patter down pat.

And as Fiona, the lovely young woman harboring a beauty-related secret, Coby Kay Callahan has the lung power to convey Fiona's blustery personality and emphatic singing style.

It's crucial that the three central charaters possess an assertive stage presence, because you don't want them to ever be overwhelmed by a once-upon-a-time fairy tale plot that's inhabited by a near-surreal assortment of storybook characters.

If anything, this musical sometimes becomes so busy and loud that it's borderline-grating. Of course, adults are more likely to feel that way than kids.

The Toby's production tells the show's hectic story with creatively mixed results. Some of the mythological trappings are enchanting, as in a nifty puppet dragon that's forcefully voiced by Ashley Johnson.

When this dragon proceeds across the stage, it's all the more engaging thanks to the way in which choreographer Shalyce Hemby and musical director Douglas Lawler ensure that you believe in it.

Also winning is the comic performance by Jeffrey Shankle as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad, who more than compensates for his short stature with a soaring ego.

Lord Farquaad is at odds with a bizarre community of fairy tale characters, including Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio, Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pan, Mama Bear, Pied Piper, Fairy Godmother and Mad Hatter.

These instantly recognizable characters are incisively portrayed by actors playing multiple roles. They're funny, but would be funnier if they had crisper delivery of their dialogue and song lyrics.

Although songs involving the legion of fairy tale characters often become a musical mob scene, the spectacle admittedly does hold your attention; and you're fortunately always attentive to how Shrek and his friends move through the noise and arrive at a happy ending.

"Shrek the Musical" runs through June 22 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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