Shrek The Musical is based on the Dreamworks film of 2001 (Is it really that long ago?), which was based on a 1990 children’s book by William Steig. The show has music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline or Change; Fun Home), and book and lyrics by playwright David Lindsay-Abair (Good People). This team boasts serious creative heft. The Broadway production premiered in December 2008 and, modified and rewritten, played for two years in London’s West End from 2011 before embarking on a British tour. It is basically this production that has now opened in Sydney, and will go on to Melbourne and Brisbane later in the year. The Broadway production was reputedly the most expensive show ever to open at that time, with a $25 million budget. Friends who saw it on Broadway and have seen this production in previews told me there are fewer people on stage, and the staging is less lavish than the original. I wonder how much that matters? Shrek is a show that relies fundamentally on two things: humour and heart. The version at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre (produced by John Frost and Glass Half Full Productions in association with Neal Street Productions and Playful Productions) has plenty of the former and loads of the latter.
Ben Mingay, Nat Jobe and Lucy Durack. Photograph © Brian Geach
If you don’t know the film, the story is a reverse fairy tale. Shrek is the ultimate outsider: an ugly green ogre, living alone in his swamp… until it is invaded by fairytale characters who the short-statured Prince Farquaad has banished from the kingdom. Incensed at his loss of privacy, Shrek and his friend the Donkey make a deal with Prince Farquaad to get ownership of the swamp back. Farquaad sends Shrek to rescue a fair princess (Fiona), who is imprisoned in a castle guarded by a fierce dragon. Shrek does, but then falls for her. The two seem to have a lot in common, including an exuberant love of farting, and would be a perfect couple if only the princess were not beautiful. Fiona has a secret, however, which the Donkey discovers: she has been cursed, and turns into a green ogre by night. This embarrassing transformation will keep happening until she is kissed by her true love. Eventually the green couple fall in love and pompous Farquaad gets his comeuppance. Even the Donkey and the Dragon get together: Presumably their offspring will go into politics.
This script requires performers who can send it up but also express the emotional truth of the central relationships: Shrek’s outsider status and how he deals with loneliness, the nature of friendship and loyalty, and the truism that beauty is only skin deep. Also, it doesn’t hurt if Tesori’s snappy but often complex music is sung by confident, experienced voices, and played by a band that relishes the traditional Broadway references. The Australian production has all this, under the eye of Associate Director Jenny Sawyer, Resident Director Luke Joslin, Resident Choreographer Cristina D’Agostino, and ear of Musical Director Dave Skelton.
Todd McKenney. Photograph © Brian Geach
As Princess Fiona Lucy Durack’s vocal prowess is never in doubt, but this role reminds us of her precise comic timing. (A cadenza duet she sings with a tweety bird ends hilariously.) Nat Jobe’s Donkey also gets laughs and is extremely likeable, as he needs to be: the role is written in sassy African-American, which perhaps doesn’t resonate in Australia the way it would in New York. Jobe finds the warmth behind the shtick, and we love him. The character of Prince Farquaad is the personification of short-person syndrome: self-satisfied, nasty, lazy and, in a word, entitled. Todd McKenney plays this role almost entirely on his knees, and his energetic performance is a tribute to his professionalism and stamina. (Spoiler alert: when McKenney comes out to bow at his true height, you can’t help thinking the story’s ending might have gone completely the other way). The hardworking ensemble do everything required of them with panache, including a camp tap dance sequence with Durack. There are knockout show voices among them too – speaking of which, the huge Dragon puppet is voiced (live) by none other than Marcia Hines, who absolutely nails her big number, Forever.
The Shrek ensemble. Photograph © Brian Geach
Of course it’s Shrek’s show, and Ben Mingay is ideal. Retaining the ogre’s Scottish brogue (voiced in the original movie by Mike Myers), Mingay creates a fully rounded character, conveying all the rough-edged charm, vulnerability and humanity behind the faux-grumpy exterior. His solid bass-baritone voice rings out effortlessly, and is a joy to listen to. With such a strong central performance everything falls into place, and the result is a truly enjoyable, escapist night in the theatre. By the time we get to the curtain call song I’m a Believer (the pop hit by the 60s group The Monkees, retained from the film), we all feel a little bit less ugly.
Shrek The Musical plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre until February 9; at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, February 16 – April 12; Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, May 9 – June 7