He’s big, green, and ugly. He smells bad (how about using skunk as an underarm deodorant?), frightens everyone he meets, and wants to be left alone. He’s Shrek, an ogre. And right now he’s my choice for the most dominating leading man on Broadway.
If things go as they should, he may even get credit for bringing back the long-forgotten term “matinee idol.” But let’s hope it won’t just be the matinee crowd that takes Shrek to their heart. Brian d’Arcy James, an extraordinarily fine actor (and good-looking, it should be noted) of great versatility, is portraying the character originally created by author William Steig in his popular children’s book and subsequently the subject of a hugely successful animated film (and a sequel). He is the perfect choice.
Almost 50 years ago Mary Rodgers’ fairy-tale musical “Once Upon a Mattress” showed us how receptive an adult audience can be to what is essentially a children’s fable. Like that show, “Shrek” is favored with an abundance of wacky but wise wit. Notwithstanding Disney’s uniquely conceived and executed “The Lion King,” “Shrek” is an example of a family show that is as accessible to perceptive children as it is accommodating to sophisticated adults. Except for Stephen Sondheim’s psychologically complex “Into The Woods,” the realm of fairy tales has been predominantly in the care of the Disney corporation.
It is a minor miracle that this Dreamworks Theatrical production, under the splendid, if occasionally indulgent, direction of Jason Moore, doesn’t either condescend to minors or compromise the show’s adult perspective. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that Moore, who helmed the puppet-people musical “Avenue Q,” would choose the gifted John Tartaglia, who originated the role of Princeton in Avenue Q, to play the small but instantly winning role of the very puppet-y Pinocchio. Tartaglia’s puppetry skills are also put to work with the appearance of the fearsome and (believe it or not) seductive Dragon.
If you aren’t familiar with the book or the film, the most famous fairy tale characters abound, although they play a peripheral role in the plot. Shrek has made a home for himself deep in the woods. His domain is threatened with the arrival of the entire fairy tale population of Dulok, all of whom — including the humorously characterized and costumed Peter Pan, the Three Bears, Ugly Duckling, the Shoemaker’s Elf, White Rabbit, Big Bad Wolf, and Wicked Witch — have been exiled by the evil Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber). Shrek is promised his land back if he will rescue and bring back Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) to be Farquaad’s bride. On his journey he is befriended by a gregarious Donkey (Daniel Breaker), threatened by a pursuing Dragon and (could it be?) smitten by a tap-dancing princess.
What is astonishing is how much nuance and emotional variety D’Arcy James produces from under all that make-up. By the time he delivers the score’s most touching ballad, “Who I’d Be,” to close out Act I, he has you ready to march for the equal rights of all ogres. Breaker, who gave a dynamic performance last season in the musical “Passing Strange,” is a real kick as the gabby sidekick Donkey. His every line becomes an innuendo and every energy-charged movement appears to have two meanings of its own.
Considering his villainy, Sieber provides the funniest illusion in the show by performing on his knees (“Things Are Looking Up,”) with his costume designed to hide his legs so that he appears to be a dwarf. Foster, who is once again in the kind of comically empowered role she excels in (Inga in “Young Frankenstein” and Janet Van De Graaf in “The Drowsy Chaperone”) is totally beguiling as well as endearingly feisty as Princess Fiona, who not only conjures up the show’s most unexpectedly lively dance number (where none would ordinarily seem to fit) but sings the charming “Morning Person” for some even more unexpected results.
Enhancing as well as embracing the Shrek cartoon movie could not have been an easy task. But thanks to an extremely creative production team, this musical is alternately funny-as-can-be and heart-warming. That it is longer by an hour than the film doesn’t prove to be a problem considering the addition of many terrific musical numbers. It was no less than inspiration to engage David Lindsay-Abaire to adapt the screenplay. I don’t know how much dialogue he has extracted from the film, but much of it resonates with the same loopy overtones that made Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo so marvelously original. The lyrics he has written to Jeanine Tesori’s lovely score are also distinguished by their sweet and comical sensibility. A departure from the stunning but more seriously defined operatic score she wrote for “Caroline, or Change,” Tesori’s has written 17 songs to kick up a notch what we have come to accept as traditional show music.
Between the concerted efforts of Moore, Lindsay-Abaire, and choreographer Josh Prince, the musical numbers are tinged with illusions and references to other musicals, such as “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” and “A Chorus Line.” Among Prince’s most amusing efforts is a giddy number that features the Pied Piper and his trailing entourage of tap dancing rats, and a very funny precision routine for the look-alike knights of Duloc (think back to the knights in Danny Kaye’s classic “The Court Jester”).
The tricky part with a show like this and with prices like this is to make sure that the escorts are as entertained as their charges. They will be. Naomi Donne deserves honors for her make-up design. The settings and costumes by Tim Hatley and the lighting by Hugh Vanstone are in the grand old tradition of being a treat to the eyes. In fact, everything about “Shrek The Musical” is in the grand old tradition — a splendid musical comedy (with a meaningful message) for the entire family. ***
“Shrek the Musical,” the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (at 53rd Street). $41.50 t0 $121.50. 212-239-6200.