Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a thoroughly disappointing musical based on a once-proud movie franchise cleverly titled Shrek the Musical, currently trading on its name at Bass Performance Hall, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.
Shrek is an example of what's wrong with entertainment in today's American culture. For in its quest to exploit every last cent out of its cash cow of a franchise, Dreamworks shoehorned what was originally a wittily pop culture-laden film satirizing fairy tales into a droll cash grab of a musical with frustratingly over-the-top characters, forgettable musical numbers (by Jeanine Tesori) and half-assed—yes, bad pun intended—jokes.
And yet, this is what passes for a good musical these days. Stephen Sondheim hangs his head in disgust, I'm sure.
Of course, it's easy to rail against new shows while celebrating the classics. That's kind of cliché, admittedly. But, there is no dearth of good new shows. What's disappointing about Shrek, specifically, is that its source material is actually good. And it's obvious very early in the show that the intelligence of the original film did not matter in the adaptation.
The first point of contention falls in the cast. Nothing against the clearly talented actors and actresses inhabiting the roles of the characters. Every single one of them is talented. The problem comes in the adaptation. In an animated feature film, the four comedic leads can be filled with comedic actors. In that case: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow. There's some serious comedy pedigree in that bunch.
In the musical however, the roles must be filled with people whose primary talent is singing, assumedly. Secondary to that would be their acting ability, or dancing in some cases. So, it's a bunch of people not specifically geared towards comedy, which history will show, is necessary to have any success in a truly comedic role.
What ends up happening in the musical, more often than not, is that the actors attempt to mimic the original voice actors and fail miserably. Specifically, Lukas Poost as Shrek and Andre Jordan as Donkey clearly lack the sort of comic timing and feel for a scene that Myers and Murphy have.
To their credit, Liz Shivener as Princess Fiona and Merritt David Janes as Lord Farquaad fared much better than their counterparts. Janes is especially funny as the diminutive dictator.
Alas, all the good acting in the world wouldn't save this show. Written by talented, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, it's difficult to tell exactly what is his and what is edited at this point. For there's another major problem with this show. Despite having a clearly defined source story, it completely lacks an identity. No two versions of the show have ever been the same. From the out of town tryouts to the Broadway run to the West End run to the first national tour and finally this non-equity national tour, no two runs have been the same. There are different songs, different characters, different props and set pieces, different dialogue. And you can thank Dreamworks for that constant tweaking, always trying to maximize their product but in the end only diminishing it.
Apparently Lindsay-Abaire's original script was just as sharp and witty as the original. So, it only stands to reason after seeing what was a simple and clichéd script on display at the Bass, that either massive changes have been made or this world simply doesn't recognize good satire anymore. But it has to, doesn't it? That's what made the original film so successful.
There really is a laundry list of concerns for this show, but only one more will make this public flogging. Most people know by this point that Lord Farquaad, the story's baddie, is a hilariously short, over compensating tyrant who hires the ogre, Shrek, to rescue Fiona from a dank tower surrounded by lava and guarded by one of the show's few high points, a wonderfully designed dragon.
Lots and lots of short jokes are made about Farquaad. It's a common theme and the film, and the ball was picked up for the musical version, with one minor change. In this version it's revealed that Farquaad's father was one of the seven dwarves, of Snow White fame.
Whoa, there. Wait just a minute. Suddenly, with the lazy insertion of yet another fairy tale joke, Lord Farquaad has gone from a metaphorical midget to a real one. And suddenly, all those short jokes go from being playful and lighthearted to mean and cruel. It's one thing to make fun of a short guy who drastically overcompensates in everything he does, like Napoleon. But, it's an entirely different thing to lob jokes at a person with an honest to goodness birth defect that causes them to be smaller than others. Lindsay-Abaire, or someone, has turned a brilliant satirical joke into hate language and, as this is really marketed to kids, sends the message that it's ok to make fun of freaks, a vital lesson the film helped to refute.
Of course, if the story wasn't so patchwork and the end wasn't so weak and abrupt, maybe the show would have risen above this and reinforced the original intended message. But it's not very good and it doesn't ever really give the closure that it's okay to be different that the film did.
Shrek is what's wrong with Broadway, and more broadly, American theater, today. It was a pure money grab and Broadway was eager to suck it up because they knew it'd sell tickets to the tourists. And it's tough to tell whose fault that is. Is it Broadway's fault for taking the easy way out, or is it Americans' faults for turning away from good theater in favor of the Cineplex or the boob tube. What begat what?
Either way, the remedy is not pandering and that's exctly what Shrek the Musical does. It panders. Broadway, and the American theater scene in general should, in the words of the show, let their "freak flag fly" and dare to make great theater.
After all, it's not dead. The last 20 years have given us Rent, Wicked, Avenue Q, The Producers, Spring Awakening, Hairspray, Billy Elliot and The Book of Mormon. There are still great new musicals out there. Do yourself a favor and stay out of this swamp. Save your money and time for a true happily ever after.