Shrek: The Musical (Review – Online)

Shrek: The Musical (Review – Online)

A musical involving fairy tale characters seemed a highly appropriate choice for Christmas Day but as it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of grit in that particular oyster, Shrek: The Musical seemed like it might provide a winning combination. I’ve always quite admired the way the Shrek franchise opts for a modern day spin on the traditional form, undermining expectations and undercutting some of the more winsome aspects with one liners and witty put downs. It all works well as an animated cartoon, but does it do the same in a live stage version? Simply put, both yes and no.

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The storyline and the characters are the familiar ones from the first film with green-skinned, Caledonian-toned ogre Shrek embarking on a quest to rescue Princess Fiona. Not because he’s any sort of hero himself, of course, but because it’s the only way he can get repossession of his swamp from a group of enforced refugee fairy tale characters who have invaded his solitude – Shrek is a strong believer in social distancing. The villainous and incredibly short Lord Farquaad needs to marry a princess in order to claim kingship of the land of Duloc and gets Shrek to do the deed accompanied by the wisecracking Donkey. As tradition demands there are perils to overcome – a dragon to fight, a tall tower to scale and a damsel to rescue from an imposed lockdown –  not to mention dealing with a plethora of bodily odours. But more importantly there’s prejudice to combat and self-belief to cultivate. This may not be Disney but there are still important lessons to be learned by the characters and, by extension, the audience. Interestingly Shrek/Fiona/Farquaad are all given back stories which show they are linked by abandonment issues in early life. As that’s a constant trope in a lot of fairy tales (cf Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel) this works on more than one level.

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Brian d’Arcy James plays Shrek under layers of prosthetics and with a speaking voice that almost perfectly replicates that of Mike Myers in the film; he is in fine voice during the songs. Daniel Breaker has plenty of energy as the sidekick Donkey but loses some of the effect by being on two legs throughout. In their scenes together the pair start to resemble a grouchy Hardy and a rather camp Laurel. Talking of camp, that is also the hallmark of Christopher Sieber’s Lord Farquaad who is clearly channelling Olivier’s Richard III without the hump but with rather more hair flicking. The visual jokes with his short stature and spindly false legs are in danger of being overdone but there’s plenty of invention which just about manages to keep it fresh. Incidentally, for a show that overdoses on the “we’re all beautiful inside” message it seems a bit odd that the script goes in for quite so much heightism. Undoubted star of the show is Sutton Foster (recently on stage over here in Anything Goes which will be on BBC iPlayer shortly after transmission on Boxing Day); she is the classic triple threat performer. Morning Person, her number opening the second half when she gets to tap dance with a chorus line of rats, is the musical’s stand out moment.

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The songs by Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics) are serviceable but not greatly memorable. More often than not they tend towards the power ballad mode where characters wake up to themselves and resolve to go forward with a renewed sense of purpose – that really has been done to death. There are, though, some wittier numbers such as “Story Of My Life” sung by a disgruntled ensemble. It’s rather telling that the tune which remains in your head afterwards is the Neil Diamond interpolation “I’m A Believer” sung as an encore; maybe that’s because it comes last but also maybe because it’s simply the best song of the evening.

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There’s obviously been a fair amount of cash spent on the production if only in order to compete with the mega Disney musicals – and there’s a deliriously cheekily delightful dig at The Lion King at one point. Britain’s Tim Hatley quite rightly won a Tony – not to mention other awards – for his dark fairy tale set designs (if the present situation allows and you’re near London – see his current brilliant work on Life Of Pi) and there’s also some excellent puppetry – the dragon, the Gingerbread Man – which is enchanting. If you’ve the need to correct a bit of a sugar rush over this festive period but still want something the youngsters can enjoy at the same time, then you could do far worse than this modern fairy tale with attitude.

Shrek is available via You Tube – click here.  It can also be accessed on Netflix and other platforms  

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