“Shrek the Musical,” which received a mixed critical reaction when it opened on Broadway in 2008 and ran for a respectable but unprofitable 441 performances, seems like an ultra-solid road entry with a tour path that mixes big cities and smaller markets. If at first the show attempted to re-create the universal appeal of its edgy but lovable animated progenitor, this touring version feels quite comfortable targeting itself to an audience that was likely born either right around the time of Shrek’s film premiere (2001), or even during the film’s sequel ever after.
Eric Petersen as Shrek — leading a cast mostly made up of those who understudied the Rialto stars – comes off as more teddy bear than ogre from the start. When he agrees to march to Duloc to demand that the bevy of fairy tale creatures who’ve been expelled from their home and placed in his swamp, it’s easy to believe that he’s actually doing this as much for them as for himself.
He also embraces best pal Donkey (Alan Mingo Jr.) quickly, never seeming especially annoyed by him – largely because he’s not especially annoying or cloying. In another clear example of the show’s softer intentions, the dragon’s song “Donkey Pot Pie” has been replaced by a new song from composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, gently titled “Forever.” This altered sequence plays just fine; designer Tim Hatley’s dragon has been significantly reduced in scale from Broadway, but plenty impressive and expressive.
As Princess Fiona, Haven Burton delivers the delicious act-two opener, “Morning Person,” with the perfect exaggeration of sunny optimism, leading her into a production number with dancing rats, perhaps the only moment that captures some of the film’s edge.
Ultimately, the show is most amusing when David F.M. Vaughn as the miniature would-be-monarch Prince Farquaad was on stage. In addition to being given the best physical shtick, Vaughn has the benefit of remaining mask-less, and he’s able to make the audience hang on his every slight facial gesture.
Yes, it would be nice if the show were more imaginative in translating its original filmic fantasy-land into stage terms, and it sure would be great if the show were just plain funnier. But give Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”) and his new co-director Rob Ashford (“Promises, Promises”) credit for their artistic humility. Like its central characters, “Shrek the Musical” ultimately embraces itself for what it is: a polished, rosy-eyed, un-cynical family musical. In this form it will likely find a significantly longer and more appreciated run on tour than it did on Broadway, potentially making possible a happy financial ending for its producers.