With Broadway slowing drying up under the bad economic times, many wondered if "Shrek: The Musical", recently transported from the west coast, would fare well. It opened last night to "eeehh" reviews, but time will tell if the latest Disney (actually "Dreamworks") venture will be recession-proof.
I'm thinking "no".
“Shrek” does not avoid the watery fate that commonly befalls good cartoons that are dragged into the third dimension. What seems blithe and fluid on screen becomes lumbering when it takes on the weight of solid human flesh.
The pop-cultural jokes and “Fractured Fairy Tales”-like spoofery that are the currency of “Shrek” (and Mr. Lindsay-Abaire sticks close to the screenplay) passed in the wink of a mischievous eye on screen. Onstage they seem to linger and grow old. And morals about inner beauty and self-esteem that went down easily enough in the movie stick in the throat when amplified into power ballads with lyrics explaining that “What makes us special makes us strong.”
Then there’s the issue of performers having to dress up to resemble fantasy illustrations, a process that, to put it kindly, tends to cramp expressive acting.
Fiona is fun. No wonder Shrek falls in love with her. And when Mr. James responds to her, you realize that there’s a winning character (not to mention a very fine actor and singer) inside that fright suit. I know, I know, that’s what the show’s about: the beauty within. But it seems to me that if “Shrek” had more generally heeded its own advice about substance versus surface, it might have come closer to casting the spell that lets Broadway shows live happily ever after.
"Shrek the Musical" is sweet and busy, nice and big, and, every so often, extremely lovable. In yesterday's economy, this lavishly down-the-middle adaptation of a movie franchise would probably have been a sure thing for the big-ticket family market.
The fact that "Shrek" makes us think more about its market than its achievements, alas, says something about the shortage of real inspiration in the show itself.
Surprisingly, for too much of the show, the folk-tinged pop music by Jeanine Tesori ("Caroline or Change") is less individual than serviceable. Given the derivative nature of the pastiche – including some vaudeville and trios of overused soul-music divas – each character has more songs and the show has more aimless production numbers than the plot can support.
As it happens, it takes nearly all of Act 1 before "Shrek: The Musical" starts to sing. And when it does, it truly comes alive.
Until then, Jason Moore's staging seems like a blueprint for some "DreamWorks on Ice" version, with its by-the-numbers readings from the 2001 film and greenery that looks left over from "Tarzan."
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.
Here Comes 'Shrek'. Hold Your Nose.
You know what, though? It's also a pretty bare-bones fairy tale, stretched to 2 hours. Turns out you do need some super-sparkling work from the digital design guys to make you beguiling.
If the show, which opened Sunday at the Broadway Theatre, sometimes settles for efficiency over inspiration, so be it. That's one of the pitfalls of closely identifying your product — and these days musicals aspire, above all, to brand-name profitability — with its original source material. You have to satisfy the fans of the film as well as theatergoers who may never have heard of the movie or the William Steig book on which it is based.
Yet despite its celebration of snark (the production slyly tweaks other Broadway musicals), "Shrek" wants to honor heart as well. The show's ultimate message — it's what's inside that counts, not the outer wrapper — while not exactly new, is a fine one. And "Shrek" ends with a little sermonette of its own, sung by those outcast, eccentric fairy-tale creatures.
"Let your freak flag fly" goes one of the musical's more persistent lyrics. Maybe "Bein' Green" isn't so bad after all.
After a decade of somber snoozes, trinket factories, and Disney's family-friendly frauds, the mega-musical has been rescued by the most unlikely of heroes: an ogre in shining armor. Like the popular film that inspired it, Shrek: The Musical is an honest-to-god, across-the-board crowd pleaser.
So why does Shrek work when so many other super-sized tuners don't? Part of it is the look: The show actually looks worth the millions lavished upon it, with Tim Hatley's set and costume designs faithful to the film without being slavish imitations. Part of it is the humor: Shrek is legitimately funny. But Shrek's biggest asset is a well-credentialed coterie of cast and creatives that actually seem to believe in what they've created. They may play with the expensive toys their budget affords them, but they never forget that Shrek is fundamentally about abandoned children and learning to "let your freak flag fly."
A children's musical with a budget of about $25 million! One wonders how many more of those we'll be seeing. But frankly, recession might bring artistic relief.
It's not that "Shrek the Musical" is a disaster. Not at all. Given the givens, there's a lot to admire and enjoy. It just can't sufficiently relax into itself. Its source material lays too many traps. And the world has changed beneath it.
Turning the beloved animated movie into a musical might look like the latest in a long-cartoon-to-stage pipeline, but "Shrek" is a far tougher assignment than "The Little Mermaid." Disney titles are mostly straightforward romantic melodramas; "Shrek" was, arguably, the first of a whole new genre—kids' movie that simultaneously spoof kids' movies. "Shrek" lumbered out in a moment of huge economic and cultural confidence in the summer of 2001. You try re-creating that feeling on a stage right now.
This creative team has been grappling with this huge beast of a show for some seven months. No wonder it takes so long to find its stride. No wonder the actors look exhausted.
The show's biggest misstep was the decision to spoof other Broadway musicals, a device that's weary and out of sync with this singular, imaginary world. And no solution was found for the fairy tale characters, who here come off as a shrill bunch.
But when it comes to the lead trio of warbling misfit wanderers, you find yourself rooting for this demonstrably well-meaning show, which avoids cynicism and opens its veins. To its credit, "Shrek the Musical" even seems embarrassed by its own size and budget and the associated impossible expectations of adding a new theatrical layer to a very tricky animated onion from an easier era.