Chief Justice Michael Stailey is on his way...he's on his way!
Story of my life.
As I write this review, we've just finished our first week of production on Shrek the Musical. In fact, we're one of the first regional theatres in the Northeast to stage the show. And what an incredible experience it's been. So to sit down and view the show through these eyes is nothing more than pure serendipity.
Shrek is an ogre, happy in his own murky swamp, far away from the people who ridicule and torment him. That is until Lord Farquaad exiles every impure fairy tale creature in the kingdom and resettles them on Shrek's property. This doesn't sit well with our isolationist hero, who sets forth to knock some sense into Duloc's diminutive self-proclaimed ruler. Along the way, Shrek saves the life of a talking Donkey, who instantly becomes his best friend and partner in crime, which is good because in order to get his swamp back, Shrek and Donkey must slay a fire-breathing dragon, rescue Princess Fiona from a tower surrounded by molten lava, and bring her to Duloc to marry Farquaad, thus cementing his role as King. What could possibly go wrong?
Having seen and enjoyed Shrek on the big screen, I walked away never expecting to return to it. Yes, I sat through the 3D attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, and reviewed Shrek the Third for Cinema Verdict, but was blissfully unaware of an entire subculture of Shrekies who worshipped the character and his madcap world. In fact, before auditioning, I told our music director that I was unfamiliar with the stage adaptation, but would be happy to lend my voice if she needed it. I'm very glad she did.
Shrek the Musical is not the empty-headed candy-coated cash grab many people assume it to be. Under the direction of Jason Moore (Avenue Q), the play's story and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful) underscored by music from composer Jeanine Tesori (The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning) are a pathos-laden joyride loaded with inappropriate adult humor and more colorful character action than any child could possibly consume in one sitting. Whereas Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods mires its characters in a morass of moral conundrums, Shrek the Musical amplifies every goofy facet of their fairy tale existence like a Tex Avery cartoon on crack.
Broadway veterans Brian d'Arcy James (Sweet Smell of Success) as Shrek, Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Fiona, Christopher Sieber (Spamalot) as Lord Farquaad, and Daniel Breaker (Passing Strange) as Donkey, quickly make you forget these larger than life characters were birthed by more famous Hollywood A-listers. At no point do you ever get distracted by making comparisons to the animated films in which we first met them, so credit these performers for making the roles their own.
It helps that the staging is so impressive and the story so fluid, punctuated by show-stopping numbers like "Story of My Life," "What's up Duloc?" and "Freak Flag." But having spent the past two months developing our own version of the show, I was surprised by how unnecessarily complex some of the movement turns out to be. Granted, every dollar of the show's massive budget is on display, with groundbreaking special effects (e.g. Magic Mirror) and constant motion set pieces. What baffles me is how unnecessary much of that turns out to be, proving once again that style does not outweigh substance.
The real heart and soul of the show is found in Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics and Tesori's orchestrations. The powerful three princess harmonies on "I Know It's Today," the intensity of "Build a Wall," and the rip-roaring battle of "I Got You Beat" are just a taste of this 17-song stroke of genius. To gild the lily, there's a mountain of fantasy/sci-fi/pop culture easter eggs peppered throughout the entire show, both in dialogue and song, ensuring freshness with repeat viewing.
I'm the first person to complain that originality is dead in Hollywood and New York. As an industry, we have spent the past 20 years doing nothing but adapting existing works, remaking things that have no right being remade, and exploiting modern society's unquenchable thirst for nostalgia. And yet here's one rare case where the creative team behind Shrek the Musical took something good and made it better, telling a tale and taking us on a journey more enjoyable than we could ever imagine it to be, all the while entertaining multiple generations at the same time. That takes real talent.
I for one am proud to have been part of bringing this story to life for New England audiences, but that experience can't hope to reach the audience of Shrek the Musical (Blu-ray). Credit Dreamworks and Fox for doing something Melissa Hansen and I have been begging Broadway to do for decades, capturing these amazing stage productions to share with audiences who would never otherwise be able to witness them in person. I hope to God this is the start of a trend that will bring the power of theatre (both musical and straight) to the masses.
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen, the lush beauty of NYC's Broadway Theatre is on full display. The depth of detail gives you more than a front row seat to the action, enabling you to appreciate every set design and costume detail that would be lost to a theatrically seated audience. Bold bright colors, deep set blacks, and no digital tampering make for a fantastic visual experience. What's more, Fox's DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track brings the full auditory experience of these powerhouse Broadway vocals into your living room. No pulling any punches here. This is balls-to-the-wall singing to the back of the house.
The bonus features are the only place where Shrek the Musical (Blu-ray) falters. An 8-min featurette "From Swamp to Stage" is a bastardized version of a 90-min multi-part documentary detailing the creation of the show from concept to execution. I've included the YouTube link under the "Accomplices" section for anyone who appreciates this incredible creative process. The only other supplements here are two versions of the same thing—easy access to the show's musical numbers, with and without sing-along subtitles. Oh, and we also get the requisite DVD, Digital, and UltraViolet copies of the show for portable viewing.
Anyone looking for a feel-good night at the movies needs to see Shrek the Musical. You could be the grumpiest cuss going in, but by the time it's over I guarantee you'll be smiling from ear-to-ear. A rental or purchase will prove to the Broadway community that there's an audience for these shows well beyond the lights of 42nd Street.
Not guilty. Let your freak flag fly!
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