Friday, April 24, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Eight "Shrek: The Musical"

In the transition from animated film to ginormous Broadway production (and I love that "ginormous" has become an actual word, in that my spell checker doesn't highlight it), some projects become casualties of the process ("Tarzan" "The Little Mermaid"), while others go on to find a way to reinvent the film and let audiences experience the story in new, powerful ways, as happened with "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Then there are the films that recycle their stories, losing some of the magic of the movie, but compensate with some new, stage magic, so the whole thing is a wash. You get a production that is better than the movie in some ways, worse in others, so that in the end the entertainment value kind of balances out. "Mary Poppins" is an example of this. The film is one of the most beloved of all time. The musical, still playing on Broadway, is a tour de force of stagecraft, but lacks the subversive heart of the movie.

"Shrek: The Musical" is another example of this film:Broadway show equivalence. I found much to love in the production: great performances by Sutton Foster, Brian D'Arcy James, Daniel Breaker, Christopher Sieber and John Tartaglia; a funny, ironic, smart book by David Lindsay-Abaire (one of my favorite contemporary playwrights); tons of witty pop culture references (including one to Siamese twins Chang and Eng, that I'm certain went over the heads of 99% of the audience); great costumes and plenty of new lines to make the experience fresh, even for those who have seen the film several times.

Yet there is an undercurrent to "Shrek: The Musical" that caused the show to lose traction and miss out on some of the vigor and vibrancy of the original. Hence, the equivalence. "Shrek: The Musical" is about as good as "Shrek" the film. Which, fortunately, is pretty good.

The basic story remains in place: Shrek, the ogre, is surprised to find "his" swamp overrun by fairy tale characters who have been expelled from the kingdom of Lord Farquaad. Except Lord Farquaad can't have a "kingdom" unless he's a king, which he can't be unless he marries a princess. So when Shrek comes to complain about his swamp being invaded, Farquaad sends him off to rescue Princess Fiona for him.

The underlying tone that beauty is in the eye of the beholder remains in place, as well, but it's brought even more to the surface here. The song "Let Your Freak Flag Fly" is a celebration of diversity, and Shrek cuts to the heart of the matter when he says, near the end of the show, "beautiful ain't always pretty." (In fact, "Shrek: The Musical" might make an interesting double bill with Neil LaBute's "Reasons To Be Pretty.") Or, as Pinocchio says, "I'm wood, I'm good -- get used to it!"

There is also a sub-theme of despotism, control and torture (Farquaad breaks the legs off the Gingerbread Man) that resonate with our recent political past and our current attempts to deal with it.

Ultimately, though, "Shrek: The Musical" isn't about anything more important than having a good time. And on that level, it mostly delivers.

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