Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Shrek

Passable Shrek Misses the Point
Visually splendid show pitches firmly to kids, selling its assets woefully short
by Christian Baines

Shrek is one of those movie-turned-musical concepts that really makes sense. A big, brash, funny and self-aware take on traditional fairy tales, balanced by just the right sense of lyrical whimsy. But does a musical treatment do anything to enhance the story of Shrek?

Lower Ossington Theatre makes good use of the larger space available at the Randolph Theatre.

To be honest, not really… which is not to say it’s bad, either. The story is as much fun as it ever was, but the score is largely made up of serviceable, instantly forgettable riffs on familiar Broadway styles.
There are no memorable showstoppers that leap naturally from the plot like Legally Blonde’s Bend ‘n’ Snap, but there are no ear-aching dogs like Sister Act’s Lady in a Long Black Dress, either. So most of the heavy lifting is left to David Lindsay-Abaire’s book, a good chunk of which is transplanted from the film. It’s been some years since I’ve seen the movie, so this didn’t bother me particularly, nor did it bother the families in the audience happily lapping up the familiar characters and jokes. So Shrek the Musical does exactly what it says on the can, putting the well-known story up on stage with songs to move it along. No more, no less.

To successfully bring any cartoon to stage, you really do need a big, colourful show. In this, the design team does not disappoint. The costumes in particular are polished, colourful, economical, and loads of fun to watch. The only disappointment comes with a rather underwhelming reveal from the Big Bad – and extremely camp – Wolf, but more on the gag delivery in a bit. Emma Bartolomucci’s choreography definitely warrants praise however, bringing a much needed energy to several otherwise ho-hum musical numbers.

Nailing the part of Princess Fiona is Michelle Nash, who deftly delivers the character’s many faces and mood shifts, making each more engaging than the last. And it’s a joy to hear her sing – even if the songs themselves are going in one ear and out the other. Not faring so well is Andrew Soutter’s Lord Farquaad. He’s in fine singing voice and certainly handles the unusual physical requirements of the role (I haven’t seen an actor spend that much time on their knees in a show since… well, never mind). But his abundant energy is woefully misdirected as he begins the show at high camp and stays there. For. The. Entire. Performance. This strange choice not only leaves him with nowhere to go, but sucks any menace out of a character who frankly already struggles to be menacing. This kind of leaves Shrek without a decent villain – which, as Disney will tell you, is death for any animated feature or adaptation thereof.

some of these failures are down to direction and timing

Andrew Di Rosa delivers a strong enough Shrek, though his voice occasionally struggles, while Mark Willett seems to be summoning his best Eddie Murphy impression as Donkey. It’s a blessing to some gags and a curse to others, gradually becoming less noticeable as the show continues. And I’m quite sure, somewhere, some ‘sensitive’ soul has raised the possible blackface implication of this (though technically, he’s grey-facing).

By far the production’s biggest problem though is that it buries Shrek’s biggest asset, its sophistication and adult sass. There are too many great jokes – both original and lifted from the film – that aren’t landing, because they’re not being given the commitment they deserve. Some of this can be blamed on sound imbalances, as actors fight to be heard (I’m starting to think this might be a ‘thing’ with the Randolph since Nobody’s Idol at the Fringe suffered the same problem). But some of these failures are down to direction and timing. All too often I just wanted to reach in and slow the cast down so we (and they) could relish some of the real zingers that pepper this show. Specifically, if you’re going to parody the biggest number from Wicked, you’d better be serious about going there, nailing the gag and making it so instantly obvious that even those unfamiliar with Wicked will know something’s up. When the Big Bad Wolf reveals his big bad secret, it should be faaaaaabulous instead of just… well, awkward (and ill-fitting!).

One comes away with the impression this is a production pitched firmly at the under 12’s. And that’s… fine, I guess? The kids will certainly lap up the impressive visuals and colourful familiar characters. But the show undercuts itself by missing a big part of why so many families fell in love with Shrek in the first place. Its irreverence, unpredictability and most importantly, its cross-generational appeal.

Shrek plays at the Randolph Theatre until October 19.

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