If you’re of a certain age then you probably think the movie Shrek is a classic. And you’re correct: Shrek was a movie that mainstream audiences had never seen before. The hero was disgusting, the humor rode the line between kid jokes and adult jokes, and the fairytale trope was flipped around. People loved it, so it was followed by a good sequel (I’ll fight anyone over the quality of Shrek 2), and then a crappy sequel, and then I don’t know what followed because I stopped paying attention. By the time the Dreamworks executives decided to cash in and bring Shrek: The Musical to Broadway, most people were a little Shrek’d out. But since the film franchise is over (Right? Please?) the stage show allows audiences to revisit one of their favorite stories in a new way, with all the positive messages still intact.
The musical follows the plot of the movie, where a cantankerous ogre named Shrek happily lives in solitude until evicted fairy tale creatures are forced to live in his swamp. Shrek seeks out to evict them by contacting the evil and comically short Lord Farquaad, who in turn is trying to find a princess so he can marry her and become King. Shrek and his “new best friend”, a talking Donkey, are sent to rescue Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded tower. Problems arise, hilarity ensues, things get complicated, you know how it goes.
Moving the film characters to the stage is going to allow them a few adjustments. Shrek makes the point that ogres, like onions, have many layers. Shrek’s own layers are peeled away (I’m sorry) in emotional songs where the character confesses what he’d sometimes like his life to be. Rory Donovan makes his Shrek intimidating while also vulnerable, and his smooth rock vocals makes solos like “When Words Fail” or the angry “Build a Wall” soar. Shrek had tender moments on film, but on stage they’re appropriately bigger and make him a character everyone can sympathize with. Kids who feel like they’re different can relate to Shrek, as can adults who understand the desire to put up walls and be left alone.
Shrek’s sidekicks are both a little nutty, much to Shrek’s exasperation. Donkey is a fast-talking and excitable little thing who races around the stage with endless energy. Andre Jordan reprises the role he played on the national tour, and his solos “Don’t Let Me Go” and “Make A Move” cement him as the comical best friend character everyone loves. The stage version of Princess Fiona is made a little more manic in the musical, a side effect of living locked up in a tower for twenty years. Haven Burton (also from the tour and Broadway productions) brings experienced comedic timing and a powerful voice to make Fiona a sly scene-stealer. Benjamin Howes also scores many laughs as the pint-sized Farquaad, a role which has fake legs and requires the actor to perform on his knees. It looks like an exhausting role to play, but Howes captures the comedy of the arrogant jerk without showing any signs of fatigue.
Since enjoying a run on Broadway Shrek has become a popular choice for many regional and high school productions, which is curious given the insane amount of tech requirements. There are numerous locations, magic spells, a fire-breathing dragon, exploding animals, Pinocchio telling lies. It’s a very tall order, and the CLO runs on a very tight rehearsal schedule to get four shows out every summer. Mishaps are understandable and things do happen, although the flubs on opening night were a bit harder to avoid. At one point a crew member’s microphone was heard over the characters’, and the projector wasn’t being very cooperative either (in one scene you could see the words “server message” in the corner of the set). But such is the excitement of live theater, and cast, crew, and audience powered through it.
The humor in Shrek does tend to lie more on the childish side, which is totally acceptable since I would say this is a children’s musical. The song “I Think I Got You Beat” ends in a round of dueling bodily noises; it’s crass, but everyone laughed. The jokes in the script alternate between lines from the film, fairy tale humor, references to other popular musicals, and the requisite Pittsburgh joke. There was also a hack Caitlyn Jenner joke but, hey, let’s not dwell on it.
The positive messages in Shrek still hold up, namely that less-conventional heroes still deserve to have whatever happy ending they desire. The show also encourages kids to be themselves, particularly through the fairy tale creatures’ rallying “Freak Flag”. Shrek is a good story for children to see, and for long time Shrek fans to revisit the characters they love. And laugh at fart jokes.
Shrek: The Musical runs until July 24th. Production and ticket information can be found here.
Photos by Matt Polk. Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for two complimentary press tickets. Would you like to see more articles and reviews like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!