Theater Review: ‘Shrek the Musical’ Still in the Swamp

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CHICAGO – “Fairytales should really be updated,” muses the puckish Shrek during a final plea for the affections of a reluctant princess. It is one of those startlingly honest and quietly irreverent insights that “Shrek the Musical” is all too wary to boast, but is a welcome dagger into the cavalcade of childhood morality tales that, year after year, infiltrate the bulk of shooting star wishes and Barbie dream-houses. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 2.5/5.0
Play Rating: 2.5/5.0

It is also the simple yet remarkably shrewd concept that elevated the eponymous 2001 DreamWorks animated feature, upon which the subsequent Broadway musical was based, to its now-indisputable status of mega-stardom. Released after a litany of saccharine-sweet Disney lore that rarely if ever veered from audience-approved tropes, “Shrek” assailed the family film front with its self-aware, dry, and intermittently perverse tale of a misanthropic ogre who unenthusiastically learns that he may very well need the callous world that surrounds him.

Donkey (Alan Mingo, Jr.) gets an unwelcome seduction in “Shrek the Musical”.” target=
Donkey (Alan Mingo, Jr.) gets an unwelcome seduction in “Shrek the Musical”
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Unsurprisingly, this unexpected edge- well, as close to the edge as children’s fare can loom- was a harbinger for a new, CGI-encrusted cartoon genre. It was one that would take the moniker of “family entertainment” much more literally, ensuring that each age demographic, whether through slapstick pratfall or sexual euphemism, got its fair share of the deal.

This green-rimmed formula (the franchise managed to birth three profitably healthy sequels) seems painless enough. Curiously, then, was the musical incarnation’s inability to find a similar footing on the Broadway stage, a trial that still befuddles production’s creative team as it makes its touring bow in Chicago.

The musical, composed by the usually versatile Jeanine Tesori and penned by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire, never quite catches up to the sharp and agile tone of its source material. The educational appeal of those time-tested and requisite mores is in short, muddied supply here. And the adult goodie bag of pop culture references and impotency digs seem needlessly gourmandized. The droll “Fractured Fairy Tale” gags (one scene opens with the Gingerbread Man in a “Law & Order” type interrogation room) and whoopee puns that were swiftly winked at in the film are replaced by lumbering citations of fleeting pop culture morsels, including GPS monitors and the Volkswagen “Punch Buggy Blue” road trip game. At one point, the Big Bag Wolf actually refers to himself as a “hot tranny mess”, alluding to what is even now a dated piece of jargon popularized by a Bravo reality series. The only bit that was truant from the cortege was an appearance by the fairytale counterparts of “Jersey Shore”. But perhaps that is being saved for the sequel.

The company of “Shrek the Musical”.” target=
The company of “Shrek the Musical”.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

It is this kind of reliance on the cultural other-a dawdling batch that also includes copious references to sibling Broadway shows- that thwarts “Shrek” from finding its own literary and musical identity. The humor is too often derivative and director Jason Moore’s puppetry gags too repetitious, that when the pungent ogre does find his heart, and it is a welcome one, it’s often too late.

But after wiping away its flatulence schtick and belching contests, “Shrek” manages to unearth hints of that candid emotional kernel that has kept the brand pumping for so long. These moments frequently occur during the more authentic ballads of Tesori’s score. Swept in with cookie-cutter kid anthems are “Who I’d Be”, “When Words Fail”, and “Build a Wall”, a trio of acoustic-based songs that provide the sort of honest character introspection in a production that would be little more than an opulent coloring book without it.

It is in these moments, with their absence of tap-dancing rats and backup-singing mice, that the production’s more than capable ensemble grabs its chance to shine. Eric Petersen as the titular character is a bit more ornery than lovable considering we’re still trafficking in a children’s tale, but when it comes to the unwarranted dejection that eventually bolsters the swamp dweller to new self-esteem heights, Petersen has the authenticity down. He is joined by copilots Alan Mingo in a formidably comedic turn as Donkey and Haven Burton as a more archetypally dependent than fiercely autonomous Fiona.

Eric Petersen, Alan Mingo, and Haven Burton star in “Shrek the Musical”.” target=
Eric Petersen, Alan Mingo, and Haven Burton star in “Shrek the Musical”
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
StarMore theater reviews from our other critics.

When the winning ensemble is relieved of its authors’ consciously-clever leadening, the denizens of Far, Far Away can pack a spirited punch. But it is ultimately the piece’s jumbled tone and fear of the imaginative risk that undercuts it. Contemporary culture jeers and balleterine rodents can be giddy fun, but only when they are allowed to supplement a cogent narrative identity.

There wasn’t a single person in the audience on Sunday night who did not cheer for the green guy to win his piece of the of the proverbial swamp pie, or to believe in the bigness and brightness of the world for that matter. But it’s going to take a few more breadcrumbs, and just a bit more dollops of fairy dust, before we can take the leap with him.

“Shrek the Musical” runs through September 5, 2010 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. in Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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