Songs from the swamp

The fairytale world’s favorite anti-hero comes to the stage

Andrew Penkalski

What: Shrek: The Musical

When: Now through Sunday

Where: Orpheum Theatre (824 Hennepin Avenue)

 

Even though the last two installments dragged the âÄúShrekâÄù franchise through some simple-minded mud, the first two efforts did something very mature and refreshing to the animated feature experience.

The wit was sharp. It could be indulgently piggish at times. And most importantly, it tackled the subject matter of fairytale satire with a sense of cultural awareness âÄî an approach that transcended the closed-world methods of DisneyâÄôs market-dominating animated outputs.

So just as the original tale of an ogreâÄôs shot at the princess subverted the family cartoon standard, âÄúShrek: The MusicalâÄù presents a new set of genre expectations to slay. Luckily, writer David Lindsay-Abaire has crafted a bill of songs and book of gags both as subtle and absurd as the source material.

There is an immediately noticeable attempt to toy with the visual expectations of the story, now live on stage. The opening number, a happily heartless sendoff from the young swamp dwellerâÄôs parents, is staged in a way that introduces these beings with appropriate enormity.

The first act, however, has its stumbles. The intermittent dialogue, moments that often mimic the punchiest of the 2001 filmâÄôs memorable moments, suffer from a slowed delivery. The songs, lyrically dense with quips and non-sequiturs, can be difficult to fully digest amidst the layered vocal harmonies. Eric PetersonâÄôs rendition of the titular role, while impressively authentic, also seems to vocally succumb to the characterâÄôs Scottish brood amidst musical numbers. Regardless, there are some engrossing performances and comedic tactics to be witnessed here.

The Napoleonic Lord Farquaad, played by David F.M. Vaughn, is approached with a more bombastic level of camp and sass that allows the idiocies of this evil king character to only grow on stage. The megalomaniacal facets of this kitsch little weirdo, a portrayal that Vaughn endures almost entirely on his knees accompanied by dummy legs, allow for some well timed fourth-wall smashing, something to be expected from a staged âÄúShrekâÄù adaptation.

Haven BurtonâÄôs portrayal of Princess Fiona is another one of the showâÄôs greatest strengths. The opportunity for a live version of âÄúShrekâÄù naturally proposes the opportunity to skewer the Disney princess genreâÄôs canonical song style. The first actâÄôs âÄúI Know ItâÄôs TodayâÄù does not miss that cue. Moreover, it functions just as appropriately as homage as it does a parody.

And it is this sort of line toeing that seems to be much better handled in the second act. Princess FionaâÄôs opening number moves through a pastiche of big band and cabaret sensibilities. It is also the choreographic highlight of a production that largely plays the footwork safe. The succeeding âÄúI Think I Got You Beat,âÄù a flatulence-filled duet between the two star-crossed lovers, is built around a soulful chorus that the two lead actors tackle with some rather seductive chemistry.

While the sum may be less than its parts, the little gems staggered throughout âÄúShrek: The MusicalâÄù are awfully impressive. Whether it is watching Vaughn put his entire lower body into making his little Farquaad legs kneel to the position he is already in or Mama BearâÄôs nod to âÄúGypsyâÄù as she sings âÄúMamaâÄôs in the Mud/ MamaâÄôs in Distress,âÄù the poignant kernels carry the work, much like the original.

It is also once again more so a piece for the parents and 20-somethings in the crowd. While Donkey is once again the clear favorite for the kids, an echo of confused pre-schoolers follows the productionâÄôs more worthy punch lines. This only reiterates the fact that âÄúShrek: The Musical,âÄù much like the original fairytale story, never chooses to take the easy route.