With newly minted posters and marketing graphics, Shrek The Musical, opened at Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco to a big monstrous thud. When it opened on Broadway in December 2008, it received mixed reviews — critics generally loved the magical sets, costumes and performances by Brian D’Arcy James (Shrek), Sutton Foster (Fiona) and Lord Farquaad (Christopher Seiber). The touring production of Shrek The Musical, literally takes everything good about the show and strips it down to nothing. It became a boring, magic-less show that can’t be saved because of the mediocre score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change) and bad re-direction and staging by Jason Moore (Shrek The Musical on Broadway) and Rob Ashford (Promises, Promises and Thoroughly Modern Millie).
One of the biggest beefs I have with this production was the incredibly bad sound design. Throughout the entire show, it sounded muffled, not balanced with the small orchestra (that featured 11 local musicians) and altogether a big muddled mess. Whenever the fun chorus of misfit fairy-tale characters were on stage, it felt like they were miles away and I had one of the best seats in the house (center orchestra – row M). Whenever the two leads, Shrek (Eric Petersen) and Fiona (Haven Burton) sang together, the sound would instantly become mush. I’m generally familiar with the score and for minutes on end, I had no idea what anyone was saying. For a show that’s based in comedy, it’s hard to be funny when no one knows what you’re saying.
I saw Shrek The Musical in February 2009 – right after it opened – with the full original cast. I walked out of the Broadway Theatre and remember thinking that while it wasn’t my favorite musical of all time, it was delightful and magical. You could see $24 million dollars on the stage and it was a technical masterpiece with set pieces moving in ways I had never seen before. I knew it was going to be hard to re-create Shrek as a touring production, but the producers and designers seemed to find the easiest (and usually less creative and effective) way to tell the story. Even the choreography was dumbed down. (It was most noticeable in the semi-tap routine, “Morning Song”, at the top of Act 2.)
Instead of moving set pieces that changed effortlessly, while Shrek and Donkey (Alan Mingo, Jr.) were on their journey to find the princess, they literally ran around four trees in countless amounts of scenes. I understood what they were doing, but the re-staging of these numbers fell flat and looked messy and direction-less. It was amateurish at best. Overall, the entire re-design was non-imaginative and really affected the show as a whole. The magic was lost.
There are also a few changes to the script, music and characters. While, I’m not going to list all of the changes, the main change was the dragon song. The song, “Forever” replaced the Broadway version of “Donkey Pot Pie” (a mess of a song). This particular scene has been a headache for producers and writers since the beginning. I actually enjoyed the new song and the spectacular life-like puppet dragon was incredibly cool. But you actually never see the Dragon’s persona, played by the fierce Carrie Compere, on stage. She sings everything off-stage which is a huge mis-step. We want to see her!
Overall, the performances by the cast felt like they were “phoning it in” and not playing to a very generous sold-out crowd at the Orpheum Theatre. This might be partially attributed to the bad sound design because their performances never reached past the second row of the orchestra. Eric Petersen’s (Shrek) voice was fantastic, but again, a lot of his dialogue and jokes were missed. Haven Burton (Fiona) lost all of her “funny” since Broadway. Haven, who played Gingy in the original cast, almost stole the show with her incredible gingerbread-like voice and comedic timing. All of that spunk and energy seemed to be gone. I’ve also seen her perform Fiona’s song(s) at a Broadway Teacher’s Workshop in NYC and it was excellent in every respect. But for some reason, her performance just didn’t work. There was no chemistry between her and Shrek and the timing felt off — maybe we can just chock it up to a “bad” night.
Obviously, the show markets heavily to the children and families, but if with all of the changes that producers/directors/composer made for the touring cast, why not make the show run a little shorter? Why not pick up the pace a little more, so that the younger crowd (meaning children ages 5-11) don’t fall asleep half way through the second act? It’s a long show — clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours (we got out at 10:45pm) and the movie is only 90 minutes! I was squirming in my chair about half way through the second act, so I can’t imagine what a five-year old thought of it. I only recommend taking your kids to this, if they can actually sit that long, because the last thing you want to do is watch the show from the tiny screens in the lobby.
And the added song, “I’m a Believer” (that was featured in the first movie) at the end of the show, as a bonus curtain call, was a hot mess. Cut it.
As you can tell, I was underwhelmed in generally every area. I expected more from this tour. A lot more. I thought they were going to be able to find the magic in this off-beat fairy-tale, but the touring production of Shrek The Musical provides only a few laughs (usually regarding gross bodily functions) and one or two hummable melodies with nothing but thoughtless direction at a plodding pace — not a good recipe for any show.