Shrek the Musical
The dragon has to go. I don’t know how much the creators of Shrek the Musical, at the Broadway Theatre, paid for the gargantuan special effect (that sings), but it’s an embarrassment of monstrous proportions. The creature is not cute, it’s not scary, and it’s about as fun to observe as the chatterbox theatergoers who’ve decided Broadway is the best inter-active theater experience since "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." And you thought Cineplexes were the only places people went to chat with friends.
On a more delightful note, Sutton Foster has to stay. As Princess Fiona, she’s a joy, whether acting, singing, or, in the show’s unequivocal highlight, Act II’s "Morning Person," steppin’ out with tap-dancing rats to the moves of Fosse and the music of "A Chorus Line." Foster’s one of the few legitimate musical-theater stars on Broadway (after raves for "Young Frankenstein," "The Drowsy Chaperone," and "Thoroughly Modern Millie"), and she’s back in top form. Part clown, part All American Girl, and all darling, she portrays Fiona like Carol Burnett channeling Kelli O’Hara with a voice as pure as Snow White.
The other big star of "Shrek the Musical" is the nasty beast, and not the green one who farts. Christopher Sieber is a wicked delight as Lord Farquaad, the sadly short, evil king wanna-be who needs to marry Fiona to secure the throne. Sieber gets visual help from an extremely clever costume/technical feat that gives his character, um, legs, and his self-induced comic timing is superb. (Since a cross effort produces much of the show’s effects, ogre ears off to Scenic, Costume, and Puppet Designer Tim Hatley, Illusions Consultant Marshall Magoon, and Lighting Designer Hugh Vanstone.)
Shrek himself is played by another Broadway veteran, Brian D’Arcy James, who’s a solid, if not invigorating, presence. He smartly stays away from trying to replicate Michael Myers’ film voice (though he keeps the accent), and gives Shrek more of a straight man appeal. The uninspired choice is Daniel Breaker as Donkey, who’s saddled with the almost impossible task of competing with Eddie Murphy’s indelible wit. Breaker -- wonderful in last year’s "Passing Strange" -- makes the mistake of portraying Donkey as "generic sassy black man," whose closest clich?d relative is, of course, "flamboyant queen."
Speaking of musical-theater queens, Director Jason Moore’s adaptation is full of them. From the high-pitched Pinocchio (John Tartaglia) to the admitted cross-dresser Big Bad Wolf (Chris Hoch) to the airborne Peter Pan (Denny Paschall), and, to a lesser extent, Lord Farquaad, the message (and big finale) of the musical, "Freak Flag," is to embrace your inner-freak. Pinocchio even shouts out "I’m wood, it’s good, get used to it." Deliberate or not, one could easily interpret Broadway’s newest cartoon transfer as gay liberation. While a sitcom famously told us "there’s nothing wrong with that," it’s a bit tiring, and seems more derivative of "Hairspray" or even "Rent" than anything new under the DreamWorks sun.
"Shrek," as all but movie-hating hermits know, tells the story of the ugly ogre who falls in love with Princess Fiona, who’s a bit of an ogre herself, becomes best pals with fellow traveler Donkey, worst enemies with Lord Farquaad, and proves, in ironic fairy-tale fashion, that love conquers all. The film took pot shots at numerous fairy-tale characters and pop references, and the musical does the same. The ex-communicated creatures have a terrific number in Act 1 ("Story of My Life"), but wear out their welcome by the end.
Unfortunately, "Shrek the Musical" follows the all-too familiar pattern of pumping out show tunes you wouldn’t recognize in a line-up. (The music is by Jeanine Tesori, with lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire; who also wrote the sometimes-clever book.) Disturbingly, it also follows today’s sad axiom that every Hollywood hit needs to be turned into a Broadway musical. There’s a couple of great visuals -- look for the nesting bird -- and some funny Broadway puns ("The Lion King," anyone?). Most everything else you’ve seen before.
While "Shrek" tries to be the New Big Disney Show, it more closely resembles a B version of "Avenue Q." Unlike that show, which would never stoop to flagellation jokes for repeated laughs, this one too often gets stuck in the same old inspirational song and bland dance routines. It’s risque, but never risky. There are times when "Shrek the Musical" develops an identity of its own -- and those moments are joyous -- but, somewhere, you know those marketing manufacturers are breathing dragons’ fire down the audiences back.