When a major love song erupts with belching and breaking wind, then you know you have a Broadway musical that even a 10-year-old boy could love.
Such is “Shrek: The Musical,” a raucous, hilarious, wonderfully tuneful romp based on the Oscar-winning animated movie about a grouchy, green-faced ogre and his reluctant quest to save – and ultimately woo – a hopelessly romantic princess.
What’s particularly engaging about this show, cleverly written by David Lindsay-Abaire with pleasant and often catchy music by Jenine Tesori, is that it has something for all ages. It’s inoffensively family-friendly (the belching, etc., not withstanding) and it revolves around a laudable moral about being true to yourself and being proud of your individualism.
Best of all, while kids can have a blast with the colorful surface shenanigans and oddball fairy tale characters (Pinocchio and Gingy are particular joys), adults can delve into the sly, delicious references to social and cultural foibles. There are quick bits for theater fans to catch, spoofing cliches from “Gypsy” to “Wicked” to “Les Miserables.” There is even the obligatory Kirstie Alley joke added for local flavor.
As live theater, the show is as busy as a three-ring circus, and this version at Crown Uptown Theatre, directed by Matthew Rumsey with assistance by Austin Stang, lives up to the “Big Bright Beautiful World” promise of its opening song. The level of singing talent puts it in the top tier of Crown shows.
Opening night Friday seemed to run on an adrenalin high with performances sharp and on point, but almost at fever pitch. It made you want to say, “You’ve got this, guys, just relax and enjoy.”
New York-based actors Ryan Everett Wood and Lyonel Reneau play Shrek and his over-eager sidekick, Donkey, respectively. The two were on both national and international tours of “Shrek” and they have a solid comic chemistry in their interactions as mismatched buddies.
Wood preserves Shrek’s anomalous Scottish accent created for the movie by Mike Myers but doesn’t let it get in the way. His singing is strong in his duets with Donkey, like “Travel Song” and “Who I’d Be,” but also sensitive, particularly in the hauntingly lovely “When Words Fail” as he struggles with romantic feelings he’s never had before. Reneau, using a voice less hyper than Eddie Murphy, actually makes Donkey less obnoxious and more fun to watch. Reneau’s mellow voice in “Don’t Let Me Go” and smooth dance movements keep the critter bouncing – literally – along.
Brittney Morton is a beautiful powerhouse as Princess Fiona, who has a deep, dark (well, green-faced) secret of her own. Morton, seen here previously in “White Christmas” and “Little Women,” gives Fiona elegance, but keeps her down-home and approachable. She’s been waiting for Prince Charming so long, she’s a little needy, but Morton never allows her to seem desperate. Her lyrical “I Know It’s Today” about her rescue and the jaunty “Morning Person” show her thrilling range, strength and control.
Also powerful of voice in a “Dreamgirls” way is Injoy Fountain (previously in Crown’s “Godspell”) as a dragon who makes big yellow, goo-goo eyes at Donkey. Fountain, who simultaneously manipulates a 12-foot dragon head, is a showstopper.
And director Rumsey himself is a showstopping hoot as the diminutive Lord Farquaad, the evil ruler who wants to marry Princess Fiona for the prestige and power rather than for love. Rumsey, skittering around on his knees, gives Farquaad a smug effeteness worthy of Paul Lynde. His evil laugh is hilarious and his singing voice (Rumsey has sung with Wichita Grand Opera) makes his short – ahem, brief – appearance on stage larger than life.
On the technical side, music director James Dobinson and his 12-member orchestra keep the sound full and the pace brisk and lively. Choreographer Maurice Sims, mashing up Bob Fosse and Agnes de Mille, created huge production numbers, from a line of tap-dancing mice to the entire cast of fairy tale characters and critters whooping it up in near-unison to “I’m a Believer.”
The beautiful, two-level set by Michael E. Downs – enhanced with evocative, moody lighting by Tyler Lessin – seemed to have dozens of moving pieces, from covers of story books opening for “Once Upon a Time” to Fiona’s lofty tower to a shadowy, vine-covered bridge over the dragon’s lair to the Disney-like castle of Duloc. Framing it all is a painted proscenium with Shrek’s face turned into sort of a combo comedy-tragedy mask at the peak.
And the joint efforts of costumer/wig wrangler Dora Arbuckle, prosthetics designer Leo Riesling and make-up artist Darian Leatherman are arguably the show’s pivotal force, what with 22 fairy tale people and critters to bring to life, from Three Pigs to Pinocchio (with a growing nose, yet) to a Big Bad Wolf to witches, assorted fairies and bears, not to mention Shrek’s unique trumpet ears and Donkey’s huggable furry body.
To be sure, there were some amusing moments opening night when Farquaad’s gaudy, top-heavy hats kept falling off and Fiona’s wraparound skirt – removed for a dance number – didn’t get quite refastened, leaving a gap. And Shrek’s nose is so large, that near the front of the stage, the lights create a shadow that looks like a Groucho Marx mustache. Rather than detract, these unexpected elements made a wonderfully silly show even more fun.