More than a decade ago, I remember standing in line at the Palmetto Grande movie theater in Mount Pleasant, waiting to buy popcorn before going to see whatever movie I was reviewing that week. As I waited my turn, I perused the posters for the coming attractions hanging in the lobby. One marquee featured a big green "S" that seemed to be sprouting antennae. I later learned that the poster was for an upcoming Dreamworks animated feature called Shrek, which was about the adventures of an ogre in a world populated by the characters from all of the well-known fairy tales. At the time I was skeptical that the movie would do any business. Obviously I was wrong. "Shrek" went on to become one of the biggest grossing films of 2001, and has since spawned three sequels. With success like that, it was only a matter of time before the powers that be at Dreamworks figured out additional ways to make money off the hot property. Shrek: The Musical opened on Broadway in 2008 and closed a little over a year later. It now has a successful touring company, which performed Friday night at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. I decided to take my six-year-old son to see the show, since he's a big fan of the movie and has watched the DVD dozens of times. It was his first time seeing a Broadway musical. My first experience had been seeing the original run of Annie on Broadway back when I was in 3rd grade in the 1970s, so I figured he'd get a kick out of the show, especially since he was familiar with the source material. I was personally a bit skeptical about the live stage musical standing up to the animated feature, but curiosity got the best of me.
I'm sure that the huge success of Broadway musicals based on Disney animated features such as Beauty and The Beast and The Lion King had a lot to do with bringing Shrek to the stage. As a matter of fact, there is a brief dig at The Lion King during a scene late in the first act when Shrek and Donkey are on their way to rescue Princess Fiona. If you blink you'll miss it, but it gets a pretty big laugh.
The plot of the film, which if you're not familiar with I'm not going to recount here, is left largely intact for the stage version. There are two major things that set the stage production apart from the animated version. First, most obviously, is the fact that live actors are playing roles that previously were seen only as computer-generated images. There are some very clever ways that the production goes about replicating the look of the cartoon, including facial prosthetics for Perry Sook, the actor who plays Shrek, to a hilariously weird yet really well executed set of fake legs that allow actor Christian Marriner play the diminutive villain Lord Farquaad. Marriner spends the majority of his time on the stage on his knees, and Farquaad's short legs are fake ones covering his legs above the knee while his lower legs are tucked behind him, strategically covered by a cape. It's easy to see Marriner's real legs at times, and yet the illusion is pretty effective, in a funny sort of way. There is one particularly funny scene where Farquaad goes to kneel, and you realize that since Marriner is already kneeling that making the fake legs appear to do so is going to take some work. Even more impressive is the massive puppet that allows the giant purple dragon from the movie come to life. Three puppeteers are required to work the dragon, which takes up a large part of the stage, and the way they make the monstrosity appear to fly effortlessly over the other actors is amazing.
The other major difference between the animated feature and the stage show is that there is much more music involved in the live production. Overall, the songs in Shrek: The Musical are hit or miss, but they do manage to propel the story along. Among the better numbers are "Morning Person" and "Freak Flag," although my son will tell you that his favorite was "I Think I Got You Beat," which finds Shrek and Princess Fiona (played charmingly by Whitney Winfield) engaging in a battle of bodily functions. I mean, come on; what six-year-old wouldn't love a burping and farting contest between a princess and and ogre? A couple of tunes from the movie are retained in the stage production, including "Welcome to Duloc" and the finale cover of Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer," but the rest of the music was written especially for the Broadway show.
What ultimately makes Shrek: The Musical work is the same thing that made the movie version work, which is the way the story's core comes from the heart. The story's basic messages, that true love conquers all and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, cut through all of the silliness, not that there's anything wrong with being silly here. Among the actors, only Sook failed to impress me. I'm not sure if it was his heavy makeup and prosthetics, or the fact that he was trying a bit too hard to channel the Scottish accent of Mike Myers, who voiced Shrek in the movie version. Whatever the case, I couldn't understand what Shrek was saying half the time. It wasn't an audio issue, because everyone else was crystal clear. Sook obviously has a strong voice both when speaking and singing, but I'm guessing the audience missed a few good lines because of the heavy accent. Jeremy Gaston was great as Donkey, Shrek's faithful and talkative sidekick. Gaston gets bonus points for not simply copying Eddie Murphy's performance from the film, which would have been so easy to do. Winfield adds just the right amount of irreverent humor to the character of Princess Fiona, while Tony Johnson gets a few great lines in as Pinocchio. It is Marriner though who totally steals every scene he's in. Much like John Lithgow, who voiced Farquaad in the movie, Marriner has a great sense of comic timing, and seems to love hamming it up.
The show also threw in a few local references, including mentioning The Holy City and former College of Charleston basketball coach John Kresse. There were also a few pop culture and current event references, such as mentions of General Petraeus and the song "Call Me Maybe."
Overall, Shrek: The Musical worked a lot better than I expected. It likely won't become one of those beloved Broadway classics such as West Side Story or Le Miserables (both of which will be staged this season as part of the North Charleston Performing Arts Center's Best of Broadway), but aside from a few jokes about bodily functions, this stage production is very family friendly and creatively executed. Oh, and my son wants you to know that his favorite part was when Princess Fiona sang in such a high note that a bird exploded. It's a quick visual gag in the original movie, and the stage show finds a creative way to recreate it.
Shrek: The Musical has one more performance locally on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.