Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, June 25, 2018

From left, Brian D'Arcy James, Daniel Breaker and Sutton Foster. Click here to enlarge. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – "Shrek, the Musical" is the latest in a long line of animated screen successes to make its way to Broadway, and its arrival is a bit of a letdown. This stage version of the delightful 2001 film – and its sequels – is based on William Steig’s irreverent fairy tale about a giant green ogre, Shrek, who triumphantly overcomes low self-esteem issues and, by story’s end, captures the heart of a princess.

"Shrek" is the first venture of the movie company Dreamworks into the Broadway fray – long a Disney domain – and, with an overwhelming $24 million budget, it’s unfortunate that they have delivered a show that is only moderately entertaining for both children and adults.

The book Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire has fashioned is more or less amusing and coherent, borrowing mostly from the film and the original Steig source material. Mr. Lindsay-Abaire also supplied more than O.K. lyrics for Jeanine Tesori’s intermittently tuneful pop score. The musical has been directed at an aggressively nonstop pace by Jason Moore, who seems to have been more comfortable and confident, and less incessant, when he was staging his earlier, smaller success, "Avenue Q." The conventional dances are by Josh Prince, who is making his Broadway choreographic debut with the show.

The show’s creators lucked out with the superbly large cast they have assembled – more than 30 strong and sporting four leads who are exhilarating examples of Broadway’s new generation of musical theater talent. Brian D’Arcy James doesn’t "play" Shrek, but is Shrek. No question about it. Even under all the prosthetics and a gallon of green paint, he makes the monster a human being, a great gruff bear of a man with a Scottish brogue, who, if scratched, would bleed real red blood, not green, I’m sure. He makes Shrek into a big, virile singing character that you root for even when the musical is not always working in his favor. Mr. D’Arcy’s Shrek is a remarkable performance to behold.

Occasionally sharing his spotlight is Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona. In the past few years, Ms. Foster has starred in a string of high-profile musicals like "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Young Frankenstein," and has become one of Broadway’s new leading ladies. Here, she gets to show off most of her musical skills and add a new one: she infuses Princess Fiona with a wacky comic talent that she lets rip in a second-act tap dance show-stopper, "Morning Person," while helping a beleaguered Pied Piper get his rats rounded up.

Christopher Sieber is another new, moonstruck star, who here plays the height-challenged despot Lord Farquaad, prodigy of Grumpy, one of Snow White’s dwarfs. He plays the whole role on his knees, including in a comic musical tune and dance, "What’s Up Duloc?"

Daniel Breaker, the excellent actor/singer who made a favorable impression in last season’s musical "Passing Strangers," here is saddled with the thankless role of Shrek’s only friend and sidekick "Donkey," which he executes with a maximum of dignity and charm and silly campiness.

The real problem with "Shrek, the Musical" is that when you try to translate an animated film to the musical stage, you are attempting to integrate two divergent art forms and to transfer the complexity and subtlety of a big-screen animated film to the restrictions of the proscenium stage. To achieve such a feat, you must create a new and exciting way to retell your story. So far, the most successful example of this has been Julie Taymor’s "The Lion King," where she was able to incorporate her unique theatrical vision with telling the story in a new and exciting way.

As director-in-chief, Mr. Moore was not able to attain this with "Shrek." All of the elements that money could buy seemed to be there: spectacular scenery, costumes, lighting and special effects, but, in the end, they all seem to have fallen together in a synthetic and often unsatisfying way.

It has been pointed out as a back-handed compliment in many reviews that "Shrek, the Musical" is superior to such recent Disney farragoes as "The Little Mermaid" and "Tarzan." That makes one wonder if the shelf life for this sort of manufactured Disney, and now Dreamworks, family fare is approaching its expiration date, or at least in need of an intermission to be rethought and refreshed.

Maybe the musical should go back to the days when they were tried out and polished first in New Haven or Boston. Granted, most of these screen-to-stage shows do play pre-Broadway tryouts, but only after they have garnered huge financial movie house success.

I left the Broadway Theatre, where "Shrek" is playing, feeling as though I had exited the Shubert in New Haven years ago. I thought "Shrek, The Musical" has potential, but needed a few more weeks of doctoring on the road. Of course, whether this "Shrek" succeeds or fails, shed no tears for Dreamworks, which already has scheduled a summer 2010 release for the movie sequel, "Shrek IV."

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.