Shrek is one of the most enigmatic modern musicals. A work of two of American theatre’s greatest living authors, David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, it has some outstanding moments; “Big Bright Beautiful World” and “I Know it’s Today” are among this author’s personal favorites. Donkey and Shrek’s buddy exchanges and Shrek and Fiona’s awkward romance are thoroughly entertaining. At the same time, the plot structure has considerable liabilities (the motivation for the sudden revolution of the storybook characters is underdeveloped) and the production elements would challenge even the most seasoned designers working with an unlimited budget, as fire bridges, full-sized dragon puppets, and three-tiered towers are required for single scenes. It’s not an easy show to make work, but it’s a true crowd-pleaser when it does.
Charm City Players made it work in 2015, with an award-winning production. This year, they are remounting the show with many of the same cast, and making it work once more. Director Stephen Napp, Musical Director Kathryn Weaver, and Choreographer Jason M. Kimmel have assembled and prepared a cast that is well suited to their roles, and who sound and look professional in those roles.
Dean Davis, in the title role, is among those returning, and his Scottish dialect and perfectly timed incredulous reactions create unlikely sympathy for the misanthropic ogre. J. Purnell Hargrove is given the challenge of many of the direct-address bits (such as discussing the relative appeal of parfaits over onions, to spectators in the front row), but strikes just the right balance to keep Donkey loveably charming and irritating only to Shrek. Arguably the strongest soloists in the cast are Melissa Ann Martin (Fiona) and Alana Simone (Dragon/Mama Ogre), delighting the ears with “Forever” and “I Know it’s Today.” Martin delivers a nuanced performance as Fiona, struggling between her boiling frustration at the reality of her life and her attempts to stay focused on her goal of happily ever after, even as events fail to play out as her storybooks claim. Jeff Baker (Lord Farquaad) is at his best in moments where the fourth wall is torn away and he is called upon to really mug it for the audience, such as “What’s Up, Duloc” and “The Ballad of Farquaad.”
At the same time, when Baker turns back to other characters (for example, when he interrogates the Gingerbread Man) he doesn’t turn off the public speaking style, which makes the context of some scenes confusing. The cast faces an ongoing challenge with material so self-consciously kitschy, occasionally not reacting sincerely to the fear of an Ogre or the danger of a fire bridge, undercutting sympathy or humor. Striking the right balance between hammy and sentimental is no small feat, and Shrek lives somewhere in between the two.
It’s a credit to Napp that the ensemble is always present and precise in their delivery of the choreography. There are times during the dialogue when the ensemble (particularly as the fairytale characters) is fixed in place waiting for a cue, but these moments are few and quickly forgotten in the midst of energetic performances of “Freak Flag” and “I’m a Believer.” Young Angel Duque delivers one of the stand-out supporting performances as Pinocchio, convincingly executing the ironic social justice advocacy of the role, with a challengingly high voice that never becomes distorted.
Shrek is a massive undertaking for the production team, as evidenced by the dozens of designers listed in Charm City’s playbill (among them Annmarie Palanck as co-set designer with Napp, Kevin Hopkins as sound designer, and a team of nine costumers). The approach the company takes is as sensible and economical as it is possible to be with this musical. Shrek’s and Donkey’s costumes have received the most attention, while some pieces are much simpler, such as Fiona’s more minimalist suggestion of an Ogre (achieved with a little makeup and some gray/green gelled lights). The Dragon’s tower bridge is one of the most impressive effects, with pyrotechnics and loud rumbling sound effects, but most of the design lives in a place between storybook and cartoon, such as the bright red and yellow painted flats of the Duloc castle. For the sheer number of locations and characters, the design is always visually satisfying.
Shrek is a true fantasy with some great musical theatre elements, and a gloriously messy mix of self-conscious kitsch and sincere tenderness, performed with pride and energy by Charm City Players.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.