Countless films of recent decades have set out to spin a gently subversive fairy tale with a contemporary edge, but few have succeeded as wildly as “Shrek.” Conjuring genuine enchantment without quaintness or treacly sentimentality, the 2001 movie enlivened its storybook traditions with rude humor, gleefully anachronistic pop-culture references and knockabout characters brimming with heart. That recipe remains largely intact in “Shrek the Musical,” along with much of the irreverent charm that’s been successively diluted in two overworked screen sequels. If the storytelling is bumpy in patches and the songs don’t quite soar, the show never stints on spectacle or laughs, making it a viable contender for a slice of the Disney market on Broadway.
This first venture for DreamWorks Theatricals (produced in collaboration with Sam Mendes and Caro Newling’s Neal Street Prods.) is said to have come in at a budget of $24 million. That lofty price tag is certainly visible in Tim Hatley’s designs, which mingle high-tech and low, combining old-style backdrops and ornate frames with pop-up picture-book visuals, puppets and elaborate costumes to create a magical setting.
Unlike other toon-to-tuner translations such as “The Lion King” or “The Little Mermaid,” the show favors literal representation over stylized solutions, right down to the fat-suits and green prosthetic head-masks donned by Brian d’Arcy James as Shrek and Sutton Foster as his part-time ogre sweetheart, Princess Fiona. For the most part, the approach works, primarily because any theme-park cutesiness is offset by the mischievous humor in David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics. The production’s real achievement, however, is that the busy visuals and gargantuan set-pieces never overwhelm the personalities of the actors or their characters.
The ensemble is talented and the four leads, in particular, couldn’t be better.
Sticking to the Scottish accent used by Mike Myers in the movies, d’Arcy James makes the title character an endearing lug whose gruff, standoffish demeanor barely conceals his hunger for love. So reviled by society he feels disqualified from any hope of a fairy-tale romance, this Shrek nonetheless has deep reserves of dignity, honor and compassion underneath the ruffian exterior — qualities that pour forth in d’Arcy James’ expressive baritone.
Foster is given more to do here than in her last turn in “Young Frankenstein,” and she runs with it in a hilarious performance that gets better and better as the show goes on. It doesn’t require a belching-and-farting contest with Shrek (which we get in their funny one-upmanship duet “I Think I Got You Beat”) to prove the princess is no passive fantasy Barbie. Instead, she’s a feisty eccentric who’s been bored out of her mind by years of isolated confinement and now wants a say in her liberation.
Foster’s act-two opener, “Morning Person,” is the show’s musical and comic highlight, starting with Fiona’s wacky interaction with some unsuspecting fauna and spiraling into a full-blown ’70s disco production number (think Meryl Streep’s musical opener in “Death Becomes Her”), backed by a troupe of tap-dancing forest rodents.
Response was mixed during the show’s Seattle tryout to Shrek’s wiseass Donkey sidekick, resulting in a new costume concept and the replacement of Chester Gregory with Daniel Breaker. Echoing enough of Eddie Murphy’s original take on the character with his own fresh spin, Breaker (“Passing Strange”) has terrific energy and fine vocal and physical comedy skills. He establishes a touching buddy bond with the reluctant Shrek, notably in the sweet duet, “Travel Song.” If he plays Donkey as a little limp in the hooves, that fits with the wink-wink campiness of Lindsay-Abaire’s script, which will sail over tykes’ heads but keep adults amused.
That aspect goes into exultant overdrive with height-challenged despot Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber), who eyes Fiona as just the beard he needs to secure the throne of Duloc. Performing the entire show on his knees with two artificial mini-legs motoring away in front of him, Sieber’s outrageous costume is Hatley’s comic masterstroke, and his self-celebratory “What’s Up, Duloc?” is a hoot. Desperately overcompensating for his short stature, this maniacal clown milks applause and attention with a mix of flouncing petulance and abusive power.
Lindsay-Abaire embroiders the film’s story (itself substantially expanded from William Steig’s slender book) only in two significant ways: He shows us a trembling Shrek being shoved at age 7 from the family nest into a hostile world; and he provides a backstory to explain Farquaad’s seething resentment toward the fairy-tale creatures he banishes from Duloc.
The basic narrative — and considerable chunks of dialogue — remain unchanged. When his tranquility is shattered by an invasion of fairy-tale exiles, Shrek treks to Duloc to demand his swamp back but gets shanghaied by Farquaad into rescuing potential bride Fiona from the tower fortress where she is imprisoned by a fire-breathing dragon (more on that momentarily). En route to Duloc, romance blossoms, but unbeknownst to Shrek, Fiona is cursed to be transformed each day at sunset into an ogre, a spell that can be reversed only with true love’s first kiss.
While the first act is peppered with fun vignettes, the show is strongest in act two, when the hero and heroine’s emotional entanglements take centerstage.
Where it’s weakest — and could definitely have used a more imaginative Julie Taymor-esque flourish — is in the challenge of depicting a giant dragon onstage. It doesn’t work to switch jarringly to abstract representation, with a massive pink-head puppet, freestanding fins and three girl-group singers all meant to embody a single creature yet lacking any kind of physical connection. (Mirroring its use in “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Hairspray” and composer Jeanine Tesori’s earlier “Caroline, or Change,” the vocal trio works better later on, when Three Blind Mice perform backup for Donkey on “Make a Move.”)
Things get even more messy when the dragon pursues the protagonists through the castle before being more or less forgotten until the final scene. The lovestruck she-reptile’s unlikely romance with Donkey also gets short shrift here — in part because he seems to bat for the same team as Farquaad.
But despite its clumsy passages and uneven pacing, Jason Moore’s production saunters along agreeably, maximizing the strengths of Lindsay-Abaire’s writing and tossing in nods to Broadway shows (“Gypsy,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Lion King,” “Xanadu”), movies (“Babe”) and even “Project Runway” terminology (the Big Bad Wolf refers to himself as “a hot tranny mess”).
Especially in the fairy-tale creatures’ “Freak Flag” anthem, the show pumps up the teen-friendly agenda of outsider acceptance and advocates finding beauty in even the most unconventional-looking folks. That aspect underlines the suspicion that, no less than the Disney shows that are its obvious antecedents, “Shrek” is channeling another verdantly colored megaproduction playing a few blocks away, “Wicked.”
Tesori’s music also bears occasional resemblance to vintage Stephen Schwartz. While the songs often lack shape, they’re never gratingly derivative, benefiting from an eclectic range of retro-flavored funk and soul sounds, and from the oddly syncopated phrasing of Lindsay-Abaire’s clever lyrics. Less can be said in favor of Josh Prince’s pedestrian choreography, but to quote its opening number, the show creates a “Big Bright Beautiful World” that has much to enjoy.