Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shrek The Musical, PlayhouseSquare

(Alan Mingo, Jr. as the Donkey encounters an amorous dragon)

Usually, if you were to say that there is nothing particularly special about the story, the music, or the performances in a musical, it would be reason enough to scratch that play off your list. But that’s not the case with Shrek The Musical, now at PlayhouseSquare.

Indeed, there are reasons aplenty to grab a ticket to this production, but most of them involve the visual feast that awaits. The Palace Theatre stage is filled with jaw-dropping gorgeous sets, plus a proscenium-long love-sick dragon, operated by four hard-working puppeteers. These elements contribute to whiz-bang staging that overwhelms (in all the best ways) even as it delights.

As for the storyline, it hews closely to the animated movie from which it sprung, along with carefully copied characters down to a faux Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking donkey friend of the ogre Shrek. Not really a Beauty and the Beast rip-off, Shrek is more "Beast and the Beast," as the eternally rejected Shrek finally meets his match in the diurnally lovely (but nocturnally “monstrous”) princess Fiona.

Shrek and Fiona’s love bond is forged in an ogre fart-off that will delight every 11-year-old in the audience, as well as the furtive pre-teens who lurk inside most of the adults in attendance.

Piling on a series of references to other shows (The Lion King among them) and clever cultural tweaks, the book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire generate many smiles and a few guffaws. But the music by Jeanine Tesori never reaches the heights and is instead determinedly workmanlike.

As Shrek, Eric Petersen labors mightily inside the green prosthetic head that he wears, and manages to deliver some well-phrased tunes. But Holly Ann Butler (an understudy) never quite encompasses Fiona’s darker side, an aspect that would give many of her scenes a sharper comic angle.

Alan Mingo, Jr. does an acceptable Murphy as the Donkey, but doesn’t cut loose when the opportunities present themselves. In a similar way, David E.M. Vaughn has fun, on his knees, as the vertically diminutive Lord Farquaad, but again few chances are taken.

Indeed, it seems that the visual grandeur of this show serves to minimize the performers, or perhaps they are restrained by Dreamworks’ corporate guidelines. Whatever the case, the main characters never seem any more developed that the phalanx of storybook characters who are driven from their homes, only to inhabit Shrek’s swamp—much to his dismay.

Still, this is the kind of Broadway extravaganza that can only be seen in this area on the a PlayhouseSquare stage. So if you love eye candy, your truckload of chocolates has just arrived.

Shrek The Musical

Through March 13 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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