About a year ago, I started noticing that Shrek the Musical was being done pretty much everywhere. So I was less than excited when I heard Lyric Arts would be doing it as well. I was not alone. "Ugh, another company doing Shrek!" Shrek was feeling like the new "Seussical" (to which I give a hearty "no thank you"). Also- and this will come as no surprise- I'm a bit of a musical theater snob. I don't like the nasally book-weak musicals of the modern era. They lack depth. So a stage musical version of the movie Shrek in an era of every-blockbuster-movie-ever-produced-is-now-being-made-into-a-crappy-musical sounds like, forgive me, more "drek". I listened to the soundtrack. I didn't love it. And that, I thought, would be the end of it. I was wrong.
I found myself last night at the preview of "Shrek" at Lyric Arts. I wasn't expecting anything new. But something about the energy in the theater was different. There was an anticipation. There was an electricity. I've felt it before. Lyric Arts' production of Rent had this sense of anticipation. Latte Da's Sweeney Todd had it. And now- to my surprise- so did Shrek. You could also sense the staff's exhaustion- they really gave it all for this one- but also their desperation to share this show with the audience. My soul perked up. Could I be in for some magic? At Shrek??
The lights went down. They came up. The story began. Young actress Natalie Tran marched onto the stage as "little Ogre" and it was ON. What a magnificent little performer. And her entrance really just nails it. You know you're in for something great. Natalie's boundless enthusiasm and imagination are something all actors should emulate and learn from! (I really just cannot say enough about this magnificent young lady who delights again and again throughout the show- particularly as "young Fiona"!)
Natalie's scene with her parents, played with exceptional- and relatable- glee by Taylor Bothun and Atim Opoka, also set the tone for what would be the entire show. In fact, the first twenty minutes of Shrek are so packed with energy, so breathtaking and wonderful, I started to worry about sensory overload! And, I admit, I worried that the rest of the show couldn't keep this up. (Spoiler alert: I was wrong!)
I do not want to give a synopsis of the plot of Shrek, and I know I can't review EVERY MOMENT of the show (though I'd like to), so I am going to talk briefly about the things I think make this particular production so special.
Director Matt McNabb and choreographer Lauri Kraft have, with their cast and crew, crafted a brilliantly paced and engaging production. The stage has enormous depth yet remains intimate. The show clips along with terrific motivation. Nothing felt "stagy" or "pantomimed". We were really taken on a journey. The choreography was dynamic and expressive. It never felt forced (as it does in so many musicals)- it felt natural and exhilarating (as it should). What I mean by all this is that Shrek feels like it is expressing a living work of art on the stage (as opposed to Scene, Song, Dance, Song, Scene, Finale, etc.) Everyone is on the same page in this production and as a result, it achieves unity with the audience. (The terrific book by David Lindsay-Abaire certainly helps!)
Music Direction by Louis Berg-Arnold was terrific. I had my reservations about having the band in another room piping into the theater, but it worked. It worked splendidly, actually. I expect Lyric Arts to continue utilizing this method as it solves a LOT of issues!
The whole cast really does an exceptional job. Particularly having to play multiple roles, as most of them do, making quick make-up, character, and costume changes. Callie Schroer in particular does a really exceptional job of jumping from the Ladies-who-lunch-Karen-Walker-Wicked Witch, to a Duloc Drone, to Teen Fiona, to a Dwarf- way to infuse something unique and personal into each of those characters! I think Callie had the fastest changes in the show and it was very impressive. Kudos to the crew for making these changes happen!
Katharine Strom continues to shine on the stage as the bipolar Sugar-Plum fairy, the lonely Dragon and, of course, the scene-stealing Gingerbread Man. Katie also seems to have developed a special affinity for playing visually disabled fairy-tale characters. Well done.
Shrek and Fiona, played by Martino Gabriel-Mayotte and Anna Larranaga, along with Ricky Morisseau as Donkey, are lovely in their roles. I appreciate that they did not try and duplicate everything about the film. It would be easy for Ricky Morisseau to just try and do Eddie Murphy- but he lends his own uniqueness to Donkey and makes him his own, as do Gabriel-Mayotte and Larranaga. I thought the three of them were particularly terrific in Act II, because to me, the whole show hinges on Shrek and Fiona's relationship. Gabriel-Mayotte and Larranaga really captured both the beauty and the terror of falling in love- and their chemistry was wonderful. Donkey's refusal to accept Shrek's apology was hilarious and heart-felt. The relationships were not pantomimed or sentimental- they were genuine.
Finally, there's Kyler Chase as Lord Farquaad. Hooo, boy. I still have not recovered from the laughter. I think I broke a rib. What I reallly loved, though, about Kyler's performance, was his deep sincerity in the character. He did not treat him as a caricature or a villain- he treated him as a man with an agenda. And a huge ego. Wonderful!
Lastly, I will mention the general art direction of the show. It was brilliant. The costumes were full of expression and unique. Particularly, the Three-Little-Pigs, Wicked Witch, Pinocchio, and Sugar Plum Fairy. Everything works together: the lighting, the set, the costumes- it all seemed to come from one page rather than several pages. To me, this really lets the audience engage in the action without being distracted by this-or-that costume, that set piece, etc, etc. Well done.
As far as criticism goes, it's simple: I have none. There is nothing for me to criticize. When a show comes together and achieves unity, what can I say?
Shrek is the family answer to Into the Woods. So many theaters were stuck trying to make Into the Woods into some kind of family comedy or for children--and it never works. Into the Woods is dark. It's serious. But now, families have Shrek! It's fun! It's colorful! The message is a great one! And this production could not have been better- go and see it! Tickets are already getting to be scarce!
Ryan Nielson is a Minneapolis-based actor and Lyric Arts alum, having performed across many stages in the Twin Cities. Outside of theater, Ryan enjoys film, writing, golf, and spending time with his wife Rachel and two sons.