“Shrek the Musical,” DreamWorks Theatricals’ first outing that’s now in tryouts at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater, has got a lot in the plus column: a magical setting, a winning hero and heroine, a love-to-hate-him villain and some rollicking good pacing to kick off act two. It also has plenty of flaws, but none necessarily fatal; the creative team behind the tuner will keep working on the show, as well they should. Whether all this will come together in a fairy-tale happy ending will likely remain unclear until the show reaches New York’s Broadway theater Dec. 14.
Set and costume designer Tim Hatley (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”) has created a wonderland of swamps, forests and castles populated by colorful fairy-tale creatures and puppets great and small. Together they literally set the stage for magic and romance, which the show delivers, in fits and starts, with occasional detours into the Land of Ho-Hum.
The story follows the plot of the first “Shrek” movie pretty closely: Ogre (Brian d’Arcy James) meets donkey (Chester Gregory), and together they rescue Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) — first from the fearsome dragon (Kecia Lewis-Evans) and then from diminutive but evil Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber).
The script by David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) borrows much from the screenplay, which in turn was based on William Steig’s children’s book. Many of the musical’s funniest lines are lifted directly from the movie. (The Gingerbread Man, defying his captor Lord Farquaad, snarls “Eat me!”)
A bit of backstory has been added in the first act for some of the main characters, as well as a few seemingly pointless song-and-dance numbers. For instance, the fairy-tale characters who invade Shrek’s swamp are introduced with a “Chorus Line”-like piece (“The Line-Up”) that’s neither particularly entertaining nor effective in moving the story forward.
Nothing about “The Line-Up” or the bland opener “Big Bright Beautiful World” prepares you for a handful of flat-out terrific numbers that follow. The first of these is Lord Farquaad’s “Things Are Looking Up in Duloc,” which the monumentally talented Sieber performs entirely on his knees, with the help of clever costuming to appear suitably short.
In act two, Shrek and Fiona’s “I Think I Got You Beat” is a little gem of goofy one-upmanship. The choreography (by Josh Prince, reportedly with some last-minute, uncredited assistance from Rob Ashford) is spiffy and sprightly for the ensemble outings, if sometimes a little crowded on the 5th Avenue stage.
And then there are several lovely ballads, including Shrek’s poetic “Who I’d Be” and Fiona’s “More to the Story,” by lyricist Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori. It’s these sparely delivered songs that make you understand why a creative team would feel compelled to take the funny, sweet movie and turn it into a stage musical.
A gifted singer-actor like d’Arcy James or Foster can heighten the emotional resonance of a story with not much more than a look, a gesture or a certain intonation of a phrase. That should go without saying, of course, but too often in this show, small touches like these are overshadowed by effects or activities with little or no payoff.
D’Arcy James and Foster are a delight — separately and together. Somehow, in spite of all that green makeup and the fat suit, d’Arcy James manages to convey buckets of charm and even a kind of nobility. Foster is beautiful and plucky — at times bordering on the berserk, giving you the sense that anything could happen at any moment. As a pair they have enough chemistry to get tenure at MIT.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of d’Arcy James and Gregory. For some reason, the grumpy-ogre-plus-pesky-sidekick formula that worked so well for Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy in the movie falls flat here, not helped by the static staging of some of their scenes. (Their passage across a little footbridge to the dragon’s lair seems particularly stilted and awkward.) Or it could be that the role of the donkey would be better suited to a character actor than to a singer-dancer — even one as accomplished as Gregory.
Gregory doesn’t fare much better with his other partner, the dragon, played sometimes by Lewis-Evans alone, sometimes by a phalanx of women, sometimes by a puppet and sometimes by a combination thereof. Who is the donkey supposed to be relating to? (For that matter, who is the audience supposed to be relating to?) The puppet — huge and pink — is admittedly fabulous, but director Jason Moore needs to pursue a little clarity with this character. And word is that the dragon will be redesigned and rethought before New York.
The musical’s creators have devised an elaborate money-shot involving a giant dragon and a stained-glass window that’s evidently intended to be the show’s equivalent of “Miss Saigon’s” helicopter or “Phantom’s” chandelier. But it’s one of the least satisfying moments in this sometimes ingenious, sometimes baffling show. And while Hatley’s designs have true star quality, the dragon setpiece is a reminder once again (if we needed it) that production values don’t carry a musical.