Forget any preconceived notions you may harbor about Shrek The Musical being just another animated movie-turned-Broadway musical or a show designed only for tiny tots. With book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Rabbit Hole) and music by multiple award-winning Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Shrek The Musical is a smart, funny, tuneful musical treat whose fresh new non-Equity tour, now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts, puts it at the top of my list of favorite recent Broadway hits.

Fans of the 2001 DreamWorks Animation smash, a movie also not just for kids, will recognize the tale of Shrek (Lukas Poost), a big green ogre sent at the age of seven to live life alone in the swamp, that is until the fairytale-loathing three-foot-tall Lord Farquaad (Merritt David Janes) boots Pinocchio, Peter Pan, the Three Bears, the Big Bad Wolf, and other storybook creatures from their homes, giving them no other choice than to crash chez Shrek. A friendly if overly loquacious Donkey (André Jordan) suggests to Shrek that the two of them set off on mission to persuade Lord Farquaad to rescind his order, and though the ogre at first resists hissuggestion, he eventually gives in.

Meanwhile, the lovely if daffy Princess Fiona (Liz Shivener) awaits (and awaits and awaits) the arrival of Prince Charming so that she can make her escape from the dragon-guarded tower she’s been imprisoned in since childhood.

Learning of Fiona’s dilemma, and of Lord Farquaad’s obsession with her (he hopes that by marrying a Princess, he’ll someday become King Farquaad), Shrek offers to liberate the fair Fiona in exchange for being given the deed to his swamp and the privacy its ownership will restore to him.

Shrek The Musical works on many levels. Yes, the children will love it, and that includes adults who haven’t yet forgotten what it was like to be a child. At the same time, its scads of clever one-liners will whoosh right over the kiddies’ heads and into grownup ears, and if those grownups have any familiarity with musical theater, then Shrek’s many hat-tips to Broadway classics will prove even more of a delight. Romcom lovers, too, will surely respond to this tale as old as time. After all, who among us hasn’t dreamed of meeting and marrying Prince (or Princess) Charming? Finally, this tale of a bunch of bullied, despised “freaks” will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt victimized, particularly LGBTs, for whom Act Two’s “Freak Flag” (which feature the lyrics “it’s not the choice you make. It’s just how you, were hatched!” and Pinocchio’s final cry of “I’m wood. I’m good. Get used to it!”) makes for the best Pride Anthem in years.

Tesori’s score may well be her finest yet. Running the gamut of musical genres, Tesori’s music and Lindsay-Abaire’s craftily constructed lyrics sneak in references to Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” Dreamgirls’ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and Gypsy’s “Rose’s Turn,” to name just three. Lindsay-Abaire’s dialog sticks close to the movie’s, a particularly savvy choice where Donkey (voiced in the film by the one-and-only Eddie Murphy) is concerned.

The cast assembled for this new National Tour launched just last month may not yet have their Equity cards, but it’s clearly a matter of time till they do, as they’re a terrifically talented bunch, from the triple-threat supporting ensemble to the four sensational leads.

Poost, Shivener, Jordan, and Janes inherit roles that won their Broadway counterparts Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Circle Critics awards and nominations, and if the current Tour quartet had originated them, it would likely be their names inscribed on those statuettes and certificates.

Poost’s warmth, heart, and good humor radiate through the green ogre mask and fat suit his human self is buried under, and he sings gorgeously to boot. Shivener continues to fulfill the potential she demonstrated in her Scenie-winning performance in last year’s Beauty And The Beast. Fiona proves an even better role for Shivener than Belle was, as it allows the recent BFA grad to demonstrate expert comedic and tap skills in addition to her already proven vocal talents. Jordan steals every single scene he’s in as Donkey, ably filling Murphy’s shoes (with a bit of sassy black drag queen thrown in for good measure). Janes is brilliant (and positively irresistible) as Farquaad, performing the entire role on his knees, Tim Hatley’s inspired costume design making us believe that his legs are indeed that short.

In supporting and cameo roles, Luke Yellin’s squeaky-voiced Pinocchio is the standout, though there’s not a weak link in this oh-so-talented young bunch: Willie Dee (Pap Bear), Annie Fitch (Ugly Duckling), Susan Leilani Gearou (Witch), Kelly Teal Goyette (Mama Ogre, Mama Bear, Dragon), Schuyler Midgett (Sugar Plus, Gingy, Teen Fiona), Lyonel Reneau (Pig), Adam Steiner (Pap Ogre, Big Bad Wolf), Erin Sullivan (Fairy Godmother), Chase Todd (Peter Pan), Sarah Tranchina (Shoemaker’s Elf), Nadia Vynnytsky (Baby Bear), Ryan Everett Wood (Pig), and Chris Woods (Pig). (Goyette’s Dragon vocals are particularly wow-worthy.) Young Alexa Kerner and Rachel Khutorsky share the roles of Young Fiona, Young Shrek, and Dwarf. Swings Ian Frazier, Mara Gabriele, Ryan Rubek (assistant dance captain) and Laura Smith (dance captain) are ready to appear in ensemble roles when needed.

Steven Sposito does bang-up directorial work, following in the footsteps of original directors Rob Ashford and Jason Moore, and the same can be said of choreographer Chris Bailey, whose dance sequences are lively, imaginative, and infectious. (Josh Prince choreographed originally.) Watch out in particular for the dancing rats, who morph into human-sized rodent Rockettes.

Kevin Casey plays keyboards and conducts the nine-piece pit orchestra to perfection.

Hatley’s costumes are whimsical wonders. The show’s 25-foot-long Dragon puppet, manipulated by four cast members in black, is film animation come to life. James Kronzer has ably adapted Hatley’s original Broadway scenic design for ease of touring. Paul Miller’s lighting makes the show’s fairy tale sets even more colorful. Shannon Slaton’s sound design is impeccable, and features a greater number of perfectly timed farts and burps than you’ve probably ever heard coming from a theater stage. (Fortunately, they are odorless.) Caroline Walker is production stage manager, Kristin Steward company manager.

I’ve had the Original Cast Recording of Shrek for some time now, but hadn’t really paid much attention to it (or to the show itself for that matter), and though I enjoyed the movie, seeing Shrek The Musical hasn’t been high on my list of priorities. It should have been. Shrek had me in the palm of his big green hand from the show’s Fractured Fairy Tale opening to the post-curtain call full-cast sing-along performance of The Monkee’s “I’m A Believer.” Shrek and company have made me such a believer that Shrek The Musical is now up at the top of my Must-See-Again list. I can’t wait for another chance to be thoroughly enchanted by this swampful of musical theater magic.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 4, 2011
Photos: Joan Marcus

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