So you’re going to adapt an animated blockbuster for the stage. What do you do?
Could you hire Julie Taymor to figure out how to make a stylized elephant walk through the house on its way to a stage leaping with stylized antelope that are built atop some of the best dance talent in the professional world? Well. Yes, you could. But then you’ve set a precedent for spectacle, and without it people are gonna be like “uh, they tried, but where was the elephant? The antelope? Where was Julie Taymor?” You can tell them hakuna matata until your face is blue, but their disappointment might not be so easily forgotten.
That cartoon blockbuster adaptation was certainly a huge success, but in an important way, Shrek The Musical succeeds where The Lion King fails. Let me explain.
As I settled into my seat last night—my first time at Lyric Arts—the wonderful and sacred act of willingly suspending my disbelief was aided by how little I remembered about Shrek. The last time I saw it was in a movie theater, because I am half ancient, obviously. But I remembered the irreverent flavor, the sometimes adult edge, and the loveable heart of the story’s theme. And guess what you don’t need to keep those things not only intact but in the forefront? A freakin’ elephant. That’s what.
Shrek The Musical, especially when produced locally in smaller theatres, is stripped of so much spectacle, and I think it’s a service to the show, and to the art form in general. Lyric Arts’ production is carried not by technical elements, but by some truly beautiful voices (Martino Gabriel-Mayotte and Anna Larranaga, who play Shrek and Fiona respectively, get particularly honorable mentions along with Katharine Strom, who kicks it into high gear more than once) and many truly enthusiastic, committed performances from the ensemble. Another challenge to the audience is to separate these performances from their big screen counterparts. I mean, we’re up against Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, people. That’s not a small order. Ricky Morisseau delivers a spunky version of Donkey that keeps the familiar sass from the film but adds a flare of fabulousness that had people giggling more times than I could count (also there was a little girl in a box seat standing the whole time just about losing her mind every time he was onstage). And, okay—full disclosure, I tend to watch villains more closely than heroes because they’re often given the best stuff to work with. So let’s just talk about Lord Farquaad for a second. Through it doesn’t count as spectacle, his stature situation was handled with campy perfection. And Kyler Chase was noticeably present, listening, and responding truthfully (albeit ridiculously)—all of which are high merits in my wish list of any show.
A couple things from my wish list that I would have liked to see include a running crew (I find it a little distracting when we see characters doing scene changes in bright, easily identifiable costumes), and a little more dialect work with Gabriel-Mayotte, whose West coast Scottish was maybe just one click away from consistency. But those are small potatoes, and are certainly both understandable and forgivable.
Once the cast knocks the show’s thematic anthem, “Let Your Freak Flag Fly,” right out of the park, how could anything not be forgivable? It’s an important message that one really can’t hear too many times: be your fullest self, allow others to be their fullest self, and live happily ever after even though some things will undoubtedly go a little wrong sometimes. I needed to hear it. Maybe you do, too.
Oh. And there is at least one Julie Taymor moment in the production. But you’ll have to see it for yourself.
Andy Browers grew up in Cloquet, MN and earned degrees in Creative Writing and Theatre from Bemidji State University. He sometimes works as a theatre artist (Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Minnesota, Chameleon Theatre Circle, and the Minnesota Fringe Festival) and sometimes works as a freelance writer (you can check out some of his work at bookriot.com). He lives in Minneapolis, where he eats too much sushi. Just kidding, you can’t eat too much. Unless you’re pregnant. Which he isn’t. Probably. Okay, he eats too much sushi anyway.