Review: Shrek the Musical | Performing Arts Fort Worth | Bass Performance Hall

Dreck the Hall

Shrek the Musical, now at Bass Hall, turns a witty, satirical film into a frustratingly dumb musical.

published Friday, November 11, 2011

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. Thanks For Reading


Cory writes:
Friday, November 11 at 11:32AM

Typically I don't comment on reviews because we all have different opinions and viewpoints, but frankly I am tired of this elitist attitude about the current state of American theatre. Admittedly, I held similar views of this production when it premiered on Broadway, bemoaning the death of the American Musical Theatre. I bought the soundtrack because I am always looking for a nugget of a song for actor friends to use in auditions, and I generally dismissed it. For almost all the reasons listed in this review.

But then I won some free tickets to see Shrek and I made the trek across the Metroplex to see it with a good friend of mine. We were dubious in the beginning. We were surrounded by hundreds of children and we knew for sure we were in for a long night. Then the show started and it was fun. Was it art? Well, we can discuss the meaning of art all day long, and I probably wouldn't call it about...candy? It was sweet, it was funny, it was bright, and it held the attention of hundreds of little kids (and me) for over two hours. That is a pretty powerful statement. I watched kids who I am pretty sure don't spend a lot of time seeing live theatre really enjoy themselves and isn't that enough.

Instead of sitting in our high towers of art, can't we praise shows like Shrek the musical as a "gateway musical?" I know that it was fluff theatre that sold me into this magical world, it wasn't Sondheim (although I am now a hardcore addict) or Bernstein (I could trip on Candide any day of the week) it was the fluff that imprinted on my young mind. I think that's ok.

The last paragraph lists some great musicals of the last 20 many of those shows were intended for children or even appropriate for all ages, two or three depending on parenting styles. One of my directing teachers and later a good playwright friend of mine reminded me to "know my audience." I think the creators of Shrek know their audience and created something for them while attempting to keep everyone entertained. I think they succeeded...I didn't hear any child complain about poor imitations of voice actors...nor did I hear any nine years upset that they were being pandered to. None of the school kids around me were concerned with this show's lack of identity.

Is Shrek the musical really a show to be critiqued by educated adults? It wasn't really written for that crowd, and when I took off my elitist beret, I ended up having a good time. even got to talk to some other patrons about all the references to other musicals, and maybe one of the tweens will go home and YouTube Gypsy, Les Miserables, or Dreamgirls...if they do...then this gateway musical did everything it needed to.

Al writes:
Friday, November 11 at 3:27PM

The beautiful thing about musicals and reviews is that it's all a matter of opinion. Personally I thought it was worth the money. The level of singing was great, the colorful costumes and visuals were well done, and the dancing and choreography was very entertaining. I don't think they took the short jokes for Lord Farquaad too far at all. They were very similar to the movie. Plus, the audience, which included ALL ages, gave it a standing ovation. So I think that spoke for itself!

Dan writes:
Monday, November 14 at 10:54AM

Kris, I'm not going to bash anyone for their personal opinion, because as AI writes, it is a matter of taste. If you don't like the music or the jokes in Shrek, who am I to tell you you're wrong? However, I do bristle at the notion that there was nothing here except a "shoehorned" story here. Calling it a "money grab" is pretty unfair. And your implication is that somehow this is a big step toward some disastrous end of the American Theater seems to involve some serious lapses in memory.

If Shrek is a "money grab," then what was the critically-acclaimed Lion King? That was lauded as Pure Julie Taymor Genius. What is (the absolutely awful, in my opinion) Mamma Mia? Jersey Boys, which is a terrific show, could be considered cheap pandering to those of a certain generation, but it was terrifically done. As was Rock of Ages.

You mention some wonderful musicals of the last 20 years. I've seen almost every one of them, and I agree with you that they're terrific. I love Sondheim, having seen A Little Night Music, Company, Sweeney Todd, and others. But not every show needs to be "original," and its use of already-popular source material does not disqualify it from making a contribution to the canon of musical theater.

I happened to think a handful -- maybe two -- of the songs in Shrek were terrific and powerful, particularly as sung by Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Christopher Sieber and company from the original cast. If you didn't like them, so be it. If you think it was poorly adapted, so be it. But to claim this is some sort of sign of the downfall of the theater is something I don't believe you can back up.

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Dreck the Hall
Shrek the Musical, now at Bass Hall, turns a witty, satirical film into a frustratingly dumb musical.
by Kris Noteboom

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