A New Classic? Shrek the Musical
There's a handful of shows in the West End that could be considered suitable for children. Be it content-wise, the time of day you can see them, or even just their ability to get little ones to go see them in the first place.
Shrek the Musical releasing on Netflix has completely removed those barriers to a theatre and provides children with a fun show of their own they can watch at home. Although many adults may not be best pleased with that...
Shrek the Musical is the first instalment of the successful Dreamworks franchise, set to music. In case you've somehow missed the film, it follows Shrek, an ogre, as he attempts to get his swamp back from the evil Lord Farquad, by rescuing Princess Fiona with his trusty donkey- Donkey.
Unlike a number of Disney properties that have their own successful shows, like The Lion King and Aladdin, Shrek was not originally a musical. The film has a compilation soundtrack made up of songs that have since become synonymous with scenes from the film. While this works on screen, for a musical, it's essential to have songs that not only invoke the mood but also further the plot and develop character.
While Rufus Wainwright's Hallelujah is perfect for showing Shrek, Donkey and Fiona going their separate ways in the film, the song Build a Wall works better for the show to really solidify that Shrek wishes to cut himself off from the rest of the world.
But before diving into the songs, it's important to highlight the talent in the show. Sutton Foster is a powerhouse of musical theatre talent, originating not only the role of Fiona but several others such as Inga in Young Frankenstein and Jo March in Little Women. Her talent is undeniable, reaching plenty of high notes and joyously tap dancing in the opening of act two. Fiona may not be her finest role, but there's no denying she's talented.
The same can be said for Brian d'Arcy James, who plays Shrek. His theatre credits include Titanic's musical adaptation, his debut as Nick Bottom in Something Rotten and two separate occasions playing King George III in Hamilton. James brings something to Shrek that is unique, sympathy and sensitivity, that actually highlights Mike Myer's cold and uncaring attitude throughout the original film.
However, neither of these performances really stand up to the comedic genius of Christopher Sieber who takes on the role of Lord Farquaad. Spending the entire show on his knees, with two short legs attached to the front of his costume, what may have come across as cruel and wicked in the film, suddenly becomes camp and incredibly amusing in the show.
It's Lord Farquaad who has both my favourite and least favourite moments in the show. When Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc, we are treated to the dolls song from the film, followed by What's Up Duloc, a song sung by Lord Farquaad and the dolls. It sets the tone for his character in the same way a song like Be Prepared from The Lion King does. We are introduced to his wants as a character - perfection in every aspect of his life, explaining why all the fairytale characters were relocated to Shrek's swamp in the first place. The end of the song also has a wonderful reference to Wicked, which will be appreciated by any theatre fan who sees it.
However, it's when we get to the second act that his character deviates from that of the film and we encounter some interesting choices on behalf of the writers of the show.
While we're given some Shrek lore in the first act, we now get some for Farquaad, in a move that seems like it's ripped straight from fanfic. It never seemed necessary to know his parentage, so now we do, the information just feels out of place, like it has been crowbarred in for a cheap laugh.
The cheap laughs also often come at the expense of some iconic lines from the film. "He huffed, and he puffed, and he signed an eviction notice," is delivered very naturally in the film. But in the musical, it feels as though it has simply been crammed in to pay homage to the moment. Thankfully, the Muffin Man scene still holds up, as does the onion conversation.
Surprisingly the standout moments for me actually come in the songs that allow us to learn more about our characters. I Know It's Today, is a song sung by Fiona after we first see her in the magic mirror. It shows her at three different ages wishing for her prince to come. It signifies how important that moment is for her, and juxtaposes perfectly with how she is inevitably rescued. It gives a wonderful depth to her character that we don't necessarily have in the film.
We also have Who I'd Be, sung by Shrek on the first night the gang spend together after Fiona goes into the cave to sleep. Shrek tells Donkey who he'd be if he wasn't an ogre. He explains he'd write himself a different story, being a hero, a Viking or even a poet, just so his life would be different. It shows a vulnerability to Shrek who throughout the film, we see being quite content with being himself. It also works as the song to end act one as Fiona and Donkey join in to harmonise with their own motifs.
Make a Move is Donkey's song wherein he encourages Shrek to tell Fiona how he feels about her. Daniel Breaker plays Donkey with the same excitement as Eddie Murphy, even with the same vocal intonation at times. In Make a Move he enlists the help of the three blind mice as backing singers and makes this moment a stand out in a song that could find a home in a number of other shows.
But this is not to say that all of the songs in this show are equal to those I've already mentioned. While crafting music for a musical is no mean feat and should always be celebrated, Donkey Pot Pie is perhaps the least effective song in the show. This song is sung by the Dragon when she first meets Donkey. It features a large animatronic dragon's head and ensemble members wearing what looks to be dragon scales. It doesn't do what musical songs are expected to do. It doesn't progress the plot and it doesn't develop a character. Simply, it's a moment that feels nightmarish in a show for children and exists only to show the fire breathing dragon to the audience for her entrance in act two.
Other than that, I feel it should be noted for any unsuspecting audience member that there are several references to fatness that feel entirely unnecessary. The line "they tore my cotton granny dress and called me a hot and tranny mess," sung by the Big Bad Wolf is another example of poorly judged "humour".
Overall, I can see this show going down really well mainly with children. The characters are amusing and the story is easy to follow. The songs are catchy, even if some aren't that great, and the acting is good. However, if you're an adult who grew up watching Shrek, and know the nuances of that story, ultimately the show just doesn't live up to what it is based on, and will just fall just short for anyone going in with any major expectations.
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