Does burping have a place on Broadway? What about flatulence? And while we’re at it, how do cross-dressing wolves fit into the Great White Way?
The answers are surprisingly, yes and quite easily. This critic is not ashamed to admit that she walked into a performance of the musical Shrek with low expectations. Despite a cast of Broadway veterans as well as some promising newcomers, and a beloved movie serving as the inspiration, the latest screen-to-stage transfers that have dotted New York’s theater scene (The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein) have been, to put it kindly, less than stellar. An ardent fan of the film, as well as its resulting sequels, this critic was wary of it being adapted to the stage, no matter how impressive of a cast was assembled.
The story of an ogre who lives alone in a swamp, Shrek was a sweet story about looking beyond the surface and discovering that true beauty comes from within a person. It was a gently moral story with a glazing of just-bitter-enough sarcasm that combined to a product of perfectly blended laughter, smiles and maybe a tear or two. Expertly animated by DreamWorks, the transfer of the film to stage raised many eyebrows and provoked questions of the ability to do the film’s animation justice.
An even more important question asked was, “Why?” Why change a perfectly good film into a potentially not- as-good play?
The answer is: because it’s fun. It is with great pleasure that this critic reports that the Broadway production maintains not only the visuals of the movie but also its bitingly sarcastic, yet still sweet, tone. This success comes partly from its book, but much more from the stellar cast that is obviously having such a great time onstage that it’s almost impossible not to jump up and join them.
The title character is embodied onstage by Brian D’Arcy James, the extremely gifted actor recognizable only by his notoriously bushy eyebrows. Enconcsed in layers of green padding and mountains of makeup, James manages to make his cartoon character remarkably un-cartoonish. He belches, burps and belts his way through his scenes, but his performance is more than merely a gag reel of jokes. This Shrek actually feels, actually hurts, actually sings. And it’s easy to believe that he actually loves Princess Fiona.
Fiona, who is played with a blithe sarcasm by Sutton Foster, is so charming and fun that it’s difficult to imagine anyone not loving her. Trapped in a tower as a child, she has waited all of her life for her prince to save her, and, while Shrek is not exactly what she expected, she quickly comes to adore the giant ogre. Foster, who was recently seen and underused in the role of the zany lab assistant Inga in Young Frankenstein, possesses the wholesome appeal of a girl next door who lacks just a bit of the innocence implied in that term. She is quick and surprisingly quirky, perfectly fitting the princess who can emit a royal belch. Her blithe rendition of “A Morning Person” demonstrates the contradiction that she personifies: while warbling sweetly, she lures the Pied Piper and his mice to join her and promptly whips off her royal gown to perform an outrageous tap dance in the style of Ann Miller.
Joining the star-studded ensemble are John Tartaglia as Pinocchio and Christopher Seiber as Lord Farquad, the vertically challenged ruler who longs to marry Fiona to secure his role as the king of Duloc. Seiber. Seiber, who performs the entire show on his knees, has his tongue wedged so firmly in his cheek that one imagines if he will ever be able to remove it. His performance, especially in the cleverly choreographed number “Things Are Looking Up In Duloc” is nothing short of hilarious.
Fortunately, this humor is not limited strictly to the actors. The script is witty, ripe with humorous references to various Broadway musicals such as The Lion King and Wicked, in the same style that the film referred to the different Disney musicals that it was spoofing. The sarcasm is welcome, as the story of Shrek is an almost saccharinely sweet one of true love, inner beauty and pride in being an individual. While the attraction between Fiona and Shrek is truly sweet to witness, a mention of a prenup in the imagined wedding between a princess and the prince that saves her from her imprisonment also brings on a welcome laugh.
While the command to “let your freak flag fly” may cause a few audience members to wince, it will certainly cause just as many to smile. And in this day and age, how can anyone dislike that?