It isn’t easy being green. Just ask Kermit the Frog, the Wicked Witch of the West or Ryan Everett Wood, who stars in “Shrek: The Musical,” opening Friday at Crown Uptown Theatre.
“It takes some getting used to. It’s quite a process – about two hours each time – to put on the prosthesis, the cowl that shapes my head and blend in the green makeup,” says Wood, who has played curmudgeonly ogre Shrek for national and international tours that took him as far as Malaysia and Shanghai.
“It takes only about 30 minutes to take it all off, but then you’re dealing with getting the glue out of your hair and ears. I love the role, but there are days, say when you’re approaching the 300th performance, that it can just get in the way,” says Wood, a Texas native who got his theater degree from the University of Oklahoma and is now based in New York City.
“When that happens, I may huff and puff before curtain, but then I’ll look out at the audience and pick out one person – usually a kid who probably came because he loved the movie – and do the show just for him. It gets me fully invested again that I get to play this iconic character. That’s what I love about theater.”
“Shrek: The Musical,” which snagged eight Tony nominations in 2009, including best musical, was adapted for the stage by David Lindsay-Abaire (book/lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) from DreamWorks’ Oscar-winning 2001 animated film. This production, a Wichita premiere of sorts (Music Theatre for Young People did a junior version recently), also stars Lyonel Reneau as Donkey, Shrek’s gabby and loyal sidekick; Brittney Morton as Princess Fiona; and Matthew Rumsey – who is also directing – as pint-sized villain Lord Farquaad.
Other key players in the 34-member cast include Eddie Shields as Pinocchio, Ben Cramer as the Big Bad Wolf, Megan Parsley as the Mad Hatter, Tyler Faust as Capt. Hook, Injoy Fountain as the Dragon; Fountain, Coleman Annison and Tom Meglio as the Three Little Pigs; and Ryan Ehresman, Lexi Morris and Thomas Higgins as Papa, Mama and Baby Bear. London Peebler, Cami Abraham and Mollie Beaver play younger versions of Fiona.
Set design is by Michael E. Downs, who describes it as “one of my most creative challenges, creating an old-fashioned storybook look with multiple layers and levels” plus “engineering a 12-foot-tall dragon with an expressive face.”
Costume designer Dora Arbuckle describes her work as “bright, playful and fun but challenging” to turn cast members into 22 fairy tale critters like pigs, bears and wolves as well as fairies, witches and a famous puppet whose nose grows with each fib. James Dobinson is music director and Maurice Sims is choreographer.
“Shrek is a simple but complicated guy who lived most of his life alone because he was confused by relationships,” actor Wood says. “Then Donkey comes along determined to be his friend and that forces him out of his comfort zone. And when he discovers that he may have a love interest in Fiona, the wall he built to protect himself from the cruel world comes down and you see what a wonderful and loving creature he can be.”
Wood says that everybody has something in common with Shrek – green face excepted, of course.
“We all put up walls to protect ourselves. But we all have something to give. As an actor, I am constantly being judged, critiqued, liked or not liked. It’s exciting when you discover someone who cares,” he says. “Shrek is just an exaggerated version of what we all put ourselves through.”
Like Wood, Reneau’s history with his character of Donkey spans through touring productions that took him across the country and around the world.
“Donkey is loyal to the end. He’s true to who he is, but he’s just so honest. He’s the best friend you love dearly but can’t take everywhere,” says Reneau, who performed with Music Theatre Wichita in 2011 for “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Xanadu.” Now based in New York City, he was in the TV movie “Frenemies” and off-Broadway in “Wild.”
“Donkey is the ultimate optimist. He wants everybody to be happy. He sees Shrek as being just like him, but on the other side of the (emotional) spectrum. That’s what makes them the perfect pair as best friends,” Reneau says.
Actress Morton sees Fiona as “not your typical princess.”
“She’s kind of a tomboy. She’s not uppity or snotty and isn’t above participating in a belching contest. She’s just a regular girl who happens to be a princess,” says Morton, a native New Yorker who got her degree from Baldwin-Wallace University Conservatory of Music.
Morton played fledgling writer Jo March in the musical version of “Little Women” at Crown last year, and she says she sees a lot of parallel elements between the two seemingly disparate characters.
“Both are sort of shut away from the outside world. Both imagine the perfect romance of a prince sweeping them off their feet and are a little disappointed that it seems to be taking so long. They’re both a little opinionated. They’re also both a little neurotic,” Morton says with a chuckle. “But they are able to see the good in anyone. And they are both courageous.”
The main difference between the two is that Fiona is royalty and has a dark – make that green – secret, says Morton, previously seen at Crown as impetuous Judy in “White Christmas” and romantic chanteuse Ginger in the recent “I Love a Piano” set to Irving Berlin music. “I love her, well, unpredictability. It’s a challenge to keep up with her changes, but more fun than a conventional, fluffy role.”
Lord Farquaad will be Rumsey’s first performance on any Wichita stage since joining Crown Uptown Theatre as producing artistic director three years ago. A native Wichitan, Rumsey spent eight years studying and performing in New York before returning home to finish his degree in directing at Friends University.
“For a character actor like me, there are only so many times a role comes around that you really want to do,” says Rumsey, last seen here in Wichita Grand Opera’s “The Merry Widow” in 2011. “When I was approached to produce and direct by the new Crown investors, I never expected to perform again. But this role was just too good to pass up. He’s quirky. He’s hilarious. Besides, he’s not on stage all that long.”
For those scenes where he is on stage, blocking and directing were handled by Austin Stang, one of Crown’s resident actors.
“It gave me a chance to work a different way with people I’ve worked with intensely for the past three years. It was good to be back on that ground. It was important to be part of that group,” Rumsey says. “And it’s hilarious to think of the producer as the evil king.”
Kids can enjoy the colorful characters and the broad surface humor, he says, while adults can chuckle at more sophisticated cultural references. And theater lovers will howl at sly Broadway bits from “Gypsy” to “Chicago” to “Les Miserables” with a good-natured poke at Disney theme park cuteness.
“It’s a funny show. It’s a family show,” the director says. “And it has a beautiful message about accepting people for who they are, not who you want them to be.”