Shrek is not the usual musical theatre stunningly handsome leading man. Shrek is an ogre. He’s big, very big. His skin is green. His head is misshapen. He has something like mushrooms for ears. When he shouts, the earth and its inhabitants tremble.
How did Shrek become a musical theatre leading man?
It was not a short journey. He began life in 1990 in a fairy tale picture book by William Steig, a popular New Yorker cartoonist. Perhaps Steig was inspired to create a freak as hero by the success of his New Yorker colleague Charles Addams’ Addams Family, which went on from the printed page to movies, TV, and yes, musical theatre. Steven Spielberg optioned Steig’s book for an animated film, then sold the rights to Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks. Eventually, after the voice of Shrek, Chris Farley, died and was replaced by Mike Myers and after other stumbles and complications, the animated Shrek was introduced in 2001 at Cannes. Its release in the US broke box-office records, won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, spawned four sequels, two holiday specials, and, of course, a Broadway musical.
America loved an ogre.
The producers of the musical chose wisely when they hired David Lindsay-Abaire to write the book and lyrics. Some of his early plays display the same kind of quirky humor and twisted logic as did Steig and the various spinners of the Shrek movies. Composer Jeannine Tesori proved again her command of the music of musical theatre, if not providing any earworms in the show’s melodies.
Kirkwood Theatre Guild’s current production struck paydirt in casting the leads. Christopher Strawhun, while convincingly ogre-like, keeps us in sympathetic touch with that feeling we all have at times that we are weird and unlike everybody else. Dawn Schmid’s Princess Fiona also has to deal with that complex, though if she is careful she can hide it. Schmid’s Fiona delights by the light of day with her wit, charm, beauty, and energy. By day and night, Schmid rules the stage. Chris Moore plays Shrek’s right- and sometimes left-hand man the Donkey. He’s fun, though I wish he’d shape his comedy a little more precisely. Anyone who plays the villainous Lord Farquaard can have the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he enters on his knees, and at Kirkwood John Emory has them right there.
The plot springs from Lord Farquaad’s act of banishing from his kingdom multiple fairy tale and folk tale and popular culture characters and sending them to Shrek’s swamp, which Farquaad seems to think he owns. That’s 22 actors for the director to wrangle on the stage and for me to name in the review, and I hope they will forgive me if I don’t. Pinocchio with an active nose, Peter Pan, and an inert Gingerbread Man try to organize some resistance to Lord Farquaard so they can return to their home. But for the most part, these characters, though each has a significant story of his or her own, has too little opportunity to make anything of it. They hang about the stage, sometimes in unmotivated groups, sometimes falling into a chorus circle. And what was director Adam Grun to do with them? Write a play for each of them? At least he has the leads to show what he can do.
Music Director Sean Bippen draws fine work from the singers and the sprightly orchestra, matching Kim Klick’s sprightly choreography. Cherol Thibaut has pulled together the right costumes for all those familiar characters of our childhoods, with hair, wig, and makeup by Abby Pastorello. Stephanie Draper’s lights keeps things bright, or dark, as needed, and Jon Zielke designed sound. George Shea’s set puzzled me. It was designed for efficient changes of scenes, and I could always tell when I was in Farquaar’s castle or Shrek’s swamp. But those sets didn’t embrace the action or make a clear statement, much like the problem with the large cast.
Thanks for the effort, Kirkwood. Someday I must look at the movie and see how it deals with these things.
Photo by Dan Donovan