During intermission at Shrek the Musical, which is currently transforming the Fox Theatre stage into a bog, a woman in the lobby was heard to forlornly remark, "I think I'm the only person here who hasn't seen the movie." Which might have been a slight overstatement; surely, at least three or four other viewers were meeting the mighty green ogre for the first time. But for the vast majority of the audience, which happily skewed to the young side, the musical provides an opportunity to meet a dear friend.
The expectant mood in the theater auditorium prior to the opening-night performance was not like the heightened anticipation that precedes The Lion King and Wicked; these kids hadn't come to be thrilled. Rather, they were eager to say hello to someone they already knew. And when, early in Act Two, Shrek (Eric Petersen) engaged in a farting and belching contest with Princess Fiona (Holly Ann Butler), the laughter that rocked the Fox did not stem from embarrassment or shock. These kids love Shrek for his foibles. It was almost touching to watch parents and children find a shared humor in the taboo act of publicly passing gas.
Clearly, Shrek is a most unlikely musical hero, which means that the powers at DreamWorks had to find unlikely writers to bring the animated ogre to life onstage. It was sheer inspiration to pair playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, champion of the odd and eccentric, with versatile composer Jeanine Tesori. Together they have written a score of constant (and much underappreciated) originality. For instance, "I Know It's Today" becomes a trio sung by Princess Fiona as a child, a teen and an adult. Where have you seen that before?
Shrek's awkward ballad, "When Words Fail," makes mush of conventional love songs. Princess Fiona's "Morning Person" is a daffy spoof on the opening scene from 42nd Street, where the curtain only partially rises to expose tap-dancing feet. Here, we see toe-tapping rats that the Pied Piper of Hamelin cannot control. "Morning Person" is followed by "I Think I Got You Beat," maybe the most amusing exercise in one-upmanship since Annie Get Your Gun's "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." As the lonely Shrek and the bipolar Fiona enumerate their lives of hardship, they're also paying sly tribute to Sonny and Cher ("I Got You Babe"). Oh, to be a fly on the wall as Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori were coming up with this stuff.
The general plot closely follows the arc of the first Shrek in 2001. In addition to Shrek and Fiona, we meet the ever-talkative Donkey (Alan Mingo Jr.) and pencil-stub Lord Farquaad (the athletic David F.M. Vaughn, who seems to get a kick out of performing the role on his knees). But onstage, the fairy tale characters who have been transplanted to Shrek's bog are more than merely familiar faces (Peter Pan, the Three Bears, the Ugly Duckling, etc.). In a page straight from the Lindsay-Abaire playbook, they represent society's disenfranchised. In the spirited song, "Freak Flag," Pinocchio brazenly warns us: "I'm wood! I'm good! Get used to it!" – which is about as potent a message as you're going to hear in any recent musical geared to children.
As enjoyable as the show is, and despite the extravagance of some of its effects, it should be noted that this production feels somehow too small for the Fox stage. And because the Fox acoustics can be unkind, the louder the music gets, the more unintelligible the lyrics become. I missed the Dragon's song almost entirely. The moral here would seem to be when a show this consistently clever is also hard to hear, it becomes almost too clever for its own good.