What's Big, Green, and Mediocre?

shrek-musicalShrek the Musical

My guess is that, unless the difficult economic times intervene, Shrek the Musical, the new Broadway production based on the hit animated film, which in itself came from the story and characters from a book by William Steig, will please a lot of people. While Shrek the Musical may not be the type of show that appeals completely to me, it still has its moments. In fact, if the entire musical were as good as its best scenes, Shrek would be a real winner. It is still better than many of the Broadway musicals adapted from hit animated movies, but it is uneven in spots, and the score never quite elevates it as much as might be hoped for.

I have never seen any of the Shrek movies, but I didn't feel that got in the way of following the events of the musical. Shrek tells the story of a green ogre who, as a seven-year-old, is sent away by his parents. He lives alone in a swamp until some fairy tale characters who have been evicted from a nearby area show up. In order to reclaim the deed on his land, Shrek agrees to try to rescue a princess who has been held captive in a tower for twenty years. Of course, love ensues, Shrek learns about friendship, and we are gently taught lessons about self-esteem and not to judge people by their looks. It is standard fairy tale territory, but with a modern, hip sensibility and wit that will appeal to adult viewers as well as to the kids in the audience.

This is not purely a show just for kids. Shrek is always cheerful and, in its best moments, charming, fun, and quite funny. The musical opens with a couple of delightful scenes; we meet the young Shrek, watch him be sent out into the world, and see him react to his land suddenly becoming home to fairy tale characters such as Pinocchio, who have been sent there by the villain of the piece, the height-challenged Lord Farquaad. We meet a wise-cracking donkey who becomes Shrek's sidekick and friend. I had a pleased smile on my face as I watched much of this. But as the first act proceeds, Shrek starts to drag a bit. While it never becomes as totally silly as some cartoon-based musicals can be, there are some elements of silliness, and the musical doesn't quite ignite in the way the initial scenes indicated it might. It is big and colorful, and there is even a large dragon onstage. However, the sense of involvement needed in a totally successful theatrical piece is slightly missing. Things improve in the second act, as the relationship between Shrek and the princess evolves. The ending is sweet, and it is clear that Shrek the Musical has a big heart to go along with its spirited cast and production. But it is missing that special spark, and I think part of that is because of the score.

The music is by the very talented Jeanine Tesori, who has written three Tony-nominated scores. In the past, Ms. Tesori has shown the ability to write in different styles: for Caroline, or Change, she wrote a challenging score; for Thoroughly Modern Millie, she wrote more accessible music, with some catchy classic Broadway style melodies. While her score for Shrek is pleasant enough, at least on first hearing, it comes up short, failing to produce a big and memorable moment that truly elevates the show. There are several examples. At the end of the first act, Shrek has a number called "Who I'd Be." Ideally, it would be a soaring ballad that provides a big moment to punctuate Act One. But the music doesn't soar, and there are several other examples of that throughout the show. As a result, Shrek doesn't take flight as it might have. One of the better songs, "Morning Person," which opens Act Two and includes some nice tap steps from choreographer Josh Prince, comes closer to what we might hope for. But, even that doesn't melodically match the best songs she wrote for Millie, such as "Forget About the Boy" or"Gimme Gimme."

I admire Ms. Tesori's past work and her talents; I wish her Shrek score had made a better first impression. The book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire. There are some funny lines, and he tells the story fairly clearly, even if there isn't much drama in the proceedings. Director Jason Moore has brought real musical comedy know-how to everything on stage, providing some fluid and solid direction. The cast is first-rate, with a past Tony winner and four Tony nominees in the leading roles. Brian D'Arcy James is an excellent Shrek. Even in the green makeup and Shrek clothing, he still brings depth and emotional layers to the character, along with his always strong singing voice. As the princess, Sutton Foster is in fine form. She is funny, feisty, and delightful. Daniel Breaker almost steals the show as the donkey. His facial expressions and comic timing are wonderful, and he is totally endearing and winning. Christopher Sieber has the toughest role, as Lord Farquaad. Some of his scenes are probably the most problematic in the show. But Sieber is still a strong performer, and it is amusing to watch him maneuver his role on his knees (you have to see it to totally grasp it) to resemble the 55-inch tall Lord. John Tartaglia has a smaller role, but is fun to watch him playing Pinocchio in a falsetto voice. The audience seemed to enjoy themselves.

As I said, Shrek should prove popular with the family audience, yet has enough that can also be appreciated by the adults. I hope the tough economic climate doesn't prevent Shrek from finding its audience. In spite of my reservations, there are moments of spirited fun and charm that can definitely be appreciated, even while wishing there had been more of them. - James Miller


Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.