Shrek the Musical

Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori
Dreamworks Theatricals
Sunderland Empire

Shrek the Musical Credit: Helen Maybanks
Shrek the Musical Credit: Helen Maybanks
Shrek the Musical Credit: Helen Maybanks
Shrek the Musical Credit: Helen Maybanks

I haven’t read William Steig’s children’s book nor have I seen the film, so I came to Shrek the Musical entirely without preconceptions and left—well, just a tad underwhelmed.

This is not meant to be a criticism of the performances or the design—indeed, the production values are all extremely high.

Let’s start with the performances. There are over forty characters played by 22 performers (three of them very young) and there is not a weak link among them. As I have remarked in reviews many times over the years, we have enormous strength in depth in musical theatre in this country and this cast proves it once again. Their talent, their skill and their energy are superb. I sometimes think that we tend to take ensemble work of this high quality for granted and we really shouldn’t.

As an example, in last night’s press performance the part of Shrek was played by one of the understudies, Jake Small, and I doubt if anyone noticed. So good was he that I certainly didn’t: I was told by the proverbial little bird this morning.

A special mention for Gerard Carey who plays Lord Farquaad: not only is he totally convincing as the show’s baddie but to be so he has to contend with some very difficult physicality, on his knees all the time to make himself look very small. Kudos!

There is a brilliant puppet Dragon (reminiscent of War Horse), operated not by dedicated puppeteers but by four Ensemble members, and a lovely little Gingerbread Man (Gingy). Oh yes, and there’s a puppet nose! Whenever Pinocchio tells a lie his nose really does get longer, its growth clearly visible from the back row of the dress circle.

The costumes are really effective and when the chorus of fairy tale characters appear the stage is awash with bright colour and beautiful detail. There are some very witty touches: the Wolf, for example, appears in Grandma costume but with very un-Grandma underwear!

There are also some subtle (well, perhaps not really subtle but certainly witty) references to other shows and also two-level jokes, jokes which mean one thing to children and something very different to adults.

But of course it is a children’s show and even the romantic bits are pitched at a child’s level. For kids, falling in love with a sigh and a swoon is a real turn-off so here Shrek and Princess Fiona fall in love during a farting and burping contest—and didn’t the kids love that! Actually Shrek has one of the best pre-show mobile 'phone warnings I’ve ever come across: make sure your phone is turned off or “Shrek will jump off the stage and fart on your head!”

So why the “tad underwhelming” comment? The music. Not only is there too much (the first half was, I would say, 15 minutes too long) and it interferes with the story development, but it’s eminently forgettable, pretty bog (see what I did there?) standard pop. The encore song, The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, is the only one which sticks in the mind.

But of course that could be just an aging critic’s view: the little ‘uns around me certainly enjoyed the show.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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