A musical for the rest of us: Shrek shines in Skokie

Photo by Brett Beiner

Shrek the Musical is easily one of the best animated-film-to-Broadway-musical transformations out there, and Music Theater Works’ new production, directed by Johanna McKenzie Miller, captures everything that makes it great, from the flatulently fun main character to the adorably downtrodden cartoon characters to the high-energy Donkey to the princess-with-a-secret to the very silly evil prince…and, of course, to the songs. This is a musical for the rest of us: it is not meant to celebrate an already-celebrated ruling class; rather, its focus is on the multitudes who are usually forgotten simply because it is easy or expedient to do so. And it is that unusual focus that has made it a success.

Miller gets wonderful performances both from her leads and the many, many side characters. (This show is a perfect illustration of the oft-quoted maxim that “there are no small parts; almost everyone has a significant moment.) Supported by music director Linda Madonia’s fifteen-piece (!) orchestra, the actors sing, dance, and have a great time from start to finish, and it shows. The main character may be sullen most of the time, but Jordan DeBose gives his Shrek a huge heart, and it’s easy to understand how Dani Pike’s Fiona (not to mention Eustace J. Williams’ Donkey) can so readily see through his caustic facade.

DuBose, Pike, and Williams for the core of this play, which is more about the value of friendship than any fairytale quest for True Love. The prophecy that Fiona follows is more concerned with her inner truth than it is with the external connection that will lead her to it. And the trio, bonding more and more along their journey despite Shrek’s lifetime of pain and Fiona’s many years of disappointment, free each other to experience the joys that life has to offer. Only super-high-energy Donkey has learned to live his life on the edge, putting himself out there whether that means befriending an ogre or dealing with a dragon (Maddison Denault giving powerful voice to a great puppet), but it turns out that his enthusiasm is ultimately contagious. It’s also critical: it’s only by taking chances, no matter how out of character that might be, that anyone can find their truths and be happy.

As Lord Farquaad, Michael Metcalf happily chews up as much scenery as his character’s diminutive form will allow. Metcalf revels here in playing this tiny man with an outsized ego and enormous daddy issues. In contrast with the leads, Farquaad never does face his own truth and so is doomed to be unhappy, though he is so shallow that he may never realize it. (This being a silly fairy tale, his comeuppance is not played up in any way, but Miller makes it very clear.)

Amid the ensemble, Michaela Shapiro’s plaintive Pinocchio, Adam Raso’s crossdressing Wolf (don’t worry: the slur for transgender people has been removed from the script), and the Three Blind Mice, played by Savanna Sinclair, Jazmine Tamayo, and Jenice Upton, are standouts along with the two girls who play Fiona at younger ages (Omi Lichtenstein and Lea Bower) in the perfect character-defining song “I Know It’s Today.”

The entire cast, though, impresses with challenging choreography (by Laura Savage) and characterizations that play out subtly even in the backgrounds of scenes. By the time they get to the wonderful “Freak Flag,” a second-act opportunity to celebrate themselves, and “This Is Our Story,” the result of that celebration, we have come to appreciate the inner strength of these fairy tale creatures and, as with Shrek and Fiona, the emotional catharsis of just allowing the truth to come out. Fiona’s journey in this regard might be the most visible, but we see it in practically everyone. Her “Morning Person” helps to define her, and Pike’s rendition leads nicely into the mutually aggressive duet “I Think I Got You Beat.” Meanwhile, Shrek’s temporary return to his self-defeating persona in “When Words Fail” is DuBose allowing the audience to experience the ogre’s pain beneath the makeup.

MTW (through scenic designer Ann Davis, working with Media Designer Anthony Churchill) takes massive advantage of its recently acquired projection ability, and the living, changing backgrounds are often stunning. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes are superb, and Andrew Meyers’ lighting and Matthew R. Chase’s sound are just as good. (Chase’s electronic enhancement of Shrek’s roar is excellent.) I would be remiss not to mention, though, that the sound deadens significantly if you are seated under any of the balcony overhangs. Avoid those seats if it is at all possible…at least if you think understanding the characters is somewhat important. (Sadly, they are the only ones available to wheelchair-bound patrons like my husband.)

This entire play is an ode to misunderstood, overlooked, and mistreated people everywhere. As a trans person, I could hardly ignore its messages about living your own truth in a world that seeks to make you go away. It is such a hopeful and uplifting message, and MTW’s production is undeniably positive and joyful.

Shrek the Musical is now playing at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, until Dec 31st. Performance times vary; check the website at Music Theater Works. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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