Somehow, some way, with a budget a fraction of a national tour, a stage smaller than a Broadway star’s dressing room, a prerecorded musical track instead of a live orchestra and a cast that works day jobs, Good Company Players manages once again to produce a show that has more dazzle and heart — not to mention more laughs — than the professional tour that came through town just months before.
With “Shrek the Musical,” GCP capitalizes on the intimate setting at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. It gives us a show that connects with the audience in a way that just didn’t work for me when I saw the non-Equity national tour of the same show in April at the Saroyan Theatre.
I don’t count this 2008 musical, with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, among my favorites in terms of score. Aside from a few jolly ensemble tunes and a couple of nice ballads, the music in the show doesn’t have much impact for me. (I have no interest in buying the cast recording — and this from someone who has hundreds.) The easy-going and meandering charm of the original movie seems to be replaced by a mad-dash comic sensibility that often tries too hard.
But snappy and creative direction by Denise Graziani, an inspired production design and an excellent cast all elevate the material to another level.
For fans of the movie, the story is familiar: Shrek’s peace and quiet is disrupted when a group of unruly fairy-tale characters are banished to his swamp. What follows is basically a “road movie”: Shrek travels to Duloc, the capital, to register his annoyance, winds up sent on a mission to battle a dragon and rescue a princess, and then realizes — to his endearing horror — that he has a crush on her.
Tyler Branco, as Shrek, continues a string of strong leading roles in recent GCP shows. From the nebbish detective in “Curtains” to a smelly ogre this time around, he demonstrates impressive range. Infusing a character with personality is hard enough without molded prosthetics and goopy green makeup slathered on your head. (Shrek appliance designer Jeff White and makeup designer Emily Pessano deliver professional quality effects.) For the character of Shrek to work, he needs a gentle snark and world-weary warmth, and Branco’s easy-going charm consistently makes you root for him as an audience member.
A trio of similarly strong supporting performances helps make Shrek stand out. As Donkey — Shrek’s traveling companion — Christian David (who will share the role later in the run with Tony Sanders) has a rollicking good time, adroitly delivering many of the laugh lines that make this show so appealing for children. (Like the movie, the play works well on two levels, with plenty of flatulence jokes for the kiddies but enough sly bits slipped in to keep adults happy.) Pessano is in fine form dramatically and vocally as a headstrong and indelicate Princess Fiona, capturing her earthy sassiness. And Teddy Maldonado, in a battering physical performance that shows he’s willing to sacrifice his body in the name of entertainment, gives his finest comic performance yet in a GCP show.
In my favorite number of the show, “I Know It’s Today,” the three cast members playing the various ages of the heroine — Karlie Stemler as Young Fiona, Emily Estep as Teen Fiona and Pessano — have a beautiful moment together. In terms of the ensemble, Chelsea Harper is a standout as a perfect Gingy, the talking cookie.
Julie Lucido’s choreography offers bright moments, including an inspired “rat dance” and some fun numbers involving the residents of Duloc, slathered in bright colored vinyl.
Contributing mightily to the production is costume designer Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed, whose inspired creations are a joy. It’s the little details in such ensemble costumes as the White Rabbit (a hoppity Marc Gonzales) — the way the haunches flare out — and Pinocchio (an amusing Brandon Delsid) — the care that went into giving his entire body a wooden texture — that really stand out. Textures, colors, and constant little surprises (a spiderweb in the hair of the Wicked Witch, say) are delightful.
The special effects, too, add to the experience. And they demonstrate that you don’t have to spend millions on stagecraft to wow an audience. Best example: the 16-foot Dragon, a puppet designed and constructed by Chris Mangels. Operated by three ensemble cast members (Gonzalez, Shawn Williams and Jesse McCoy), Dragon makes its entrances and exits through the audience, which so obviously delighted children in the opening night audience that it’s a wonder she didn’t stop and give autographs. Sure, if you saw the original production of “Shrek” on Broadway, you would have gotten an amazing animatronic dragon. But at Roger Rocka’s, you can practically reach out and touch the fiery beast.
There are parts of this “Shrek” that could be tightened up, including an underwhelming finale number that lacks choreographic punch and polish. Dragon is nicely voiced by Brittney Caldwell, but the sound design doesn’t give her enough vocal impact. And the ensemble number “Freak Flag,” which is supposed to be one of the show’s rousing high points, doesn’t deliver like it should.
But this “Shrek” does come through where it’s most important: a feeling of inclusiveness and a tender, emotional connection between Shrek and his lady. There’s someone out there for everyone, including ogres. “Shrek” gives us a big green light toward love, and that’s all that matters in the end.