Three questions present themselves regarding Shrek the Musical, which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre. Can DreamWorks, following the Disney template, make a stage musical from a cartoon movie about a not-so-jolly green giant who finds love with a half-ogre princess? Can the Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and the similarly serious composer Jeanine Tesori pull off a kid-luring crowd-pleaser? And, finally, is Shrek’s asinine sidekick, Donkey, quite the prancing, squealing gay caricature he’s rumored to be? The answer, on all counts, is yes.
Shrek is a fine family-friendly musical, with the gargantuan sets (the Magic Mirror dwarfs any flat-screen you’ve seen this side of a Jumbotron; the dragon is even bigger), sprawling production numbers, and witty asides necessary to deliver the Big Broadway $120 Experience. Tim Hatley’s costumes are a treat, witty and well realized—layers of latex and gobs of green greasepaint transform Brian d’Arcy James into a convincing ogre. And Josh Prince’s choreography occasionally soars—some of the big numbers are forgettable, but they’re redeemed by tap-dancing rats and Fosse-ish skeletons.
If Sutton Foster makes an excellent Princess Fiona, winsome but iron-willed, D’Arcy James seems miscast as Shrek—it’s hard to say this about a man hidden behind prosthetics and makeup, but his fairy-tale monster is insufficiently cartoonish. He incongruously plays a naturalistic ogre. John Tartaglia is a joy to watch dancing as Pinocchio, all gangly elbows and knees, and Christopher Sieber—confined to his knees to play the diminutive Farquaad—steals any scene he’s in, full of hilariously preening self-regard. Even Daniel Breaker as Donkey has perfect comedic timing and a fantastic singing voice, though he’s inexplicably directed to play the role as a flamboyant queen. On top of the vocal inflections and mannerisms, must he spend the entire show limp-hoofed?
Lindsay-Abaire, sounding like every Hollywood director who’s adapted a cartoon to the big screen, told the Times last week that he worked to give the characters backstory and motivation. He did do that, though it’s unclear who was wondering why an ogre prefers to be alone, a princess is banished to a tower, or an arriviste aristocrat has tyrannical tendencies. For the most part, the dialogue and jokes are as you remember them from the movie, and if the show doesn’t quite rise above its source material—and it doesn’t rise from consistently entertaining to enrapturingly joyful—it’s worth remembering that that source was pretty good. The families surrounding me were contentedly chuckling for two and a half hours, even if they rarely guffawed. “I don’t know,” a happy dad goofily joked to his son in the men’s room during intermission. “It’s all green to me.” That’s what has DreamWorks seeing green, too.