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Amanda Holden (Princess Fiona), Nigel Lindsay (Shrek), Richard Blackwood (Donkey) and down front, Nigel Harman (Lord Farquaad)
Four little words – Shrek - the Musical works! Three more – I love it! I’m surprised to hear myself saying that, but it’s true! I had my misgivings when I arrived at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but I’m glad I was wrong. For as I left the theatre, it wasn’t so much the songs, but the laughter of happy children that was ringing in my ears.
Considering the fact that Shrek (2001), first film ever to win an Academy Award for ‘Best Animated Feature’ is, possibly, one of the most popular family movies of all time, you might think the musical’s success would be a given. But Shrek The Musical is surprising in its’ own way, and, fun in every way you could think of, and many you couldn’t possibly imagine without seeing it, from the entrance of its’ familiar anti-hero, to the beginning of his only in a fairytale, happy ending. The best thing about it is that the feeling Shrek the Musical, leaves you with, in your heart, like its predecessor, reinforces that lingering childhood belief that ‘when you wish upon a star… dreams really do come true’, whatever your age.
As storybook characters go, William Steig’s Shrek is an excellent example of one you’d like to bring home to your children, as he’s admittedly un-classy (or should that be un-classist?) and wouldn’t make it onto the cover of a magazine unless it was used to swat him away. And, as ogres go, he’s very human, green skin and all, and most importantly, like everyone else on this planet, he is longing for love.
Leading the resigned life of a perpetual bachelor, Shrek (Nigel Lindsay) goes about his business in a lonely swamp, loudly bellowing whenever anyone strays onto his solitary patch to frighten them away. From Shrek’s point of view, all is copasetic, until a freakish crew of nonetheless, beloved fairy tale characters including Pinocchio, Fairy Godmother and everyone’s favorite, the Gingerbread Man, are banished to Shrek’s swamp, where they immediately begin to drive him round the bend. When Donkey (Richard Blackwood) literally falls from the sky and lands at his door, Shrek’s initially miffed, but the unlikely pair become friends and set off together to sort out the misguided Lord who’s displaced Shrek’s uninvited house-guests. However, when they reach Lord Farquaad’s (Nigel Harman) kingdom, Shrek is informed that before his peace can be restored, he must first rescue Princess Fiona (Amanda Holden) from the dragon guarded tower she’s long been imprisoned in, so the ‘little’ Prince can make her his queen. But, as most of us know already, a funny thing happens on the way to the Royal Wedding…!
The term 'gentle giant' definitely applies to Shrek, who we quickly realize is one of the good guys, despite his green girth. Nigel Lindsay’s Shrek is just as likeable as his animated counterpart, so much so that the audience, both kids and adults had a tendency to spontaneously oooh and aaah in unison whenever signs of loneliness or rejection invaded his normally wry but sunny demeanour, not in a panto way, but as though they felt for him, a real tribute to Lindsay’s handling of the role. Likewise, Amanda Holden as Princess Fiona was philosophical about her years spent stuck in a tower, and her determination to reach her goal, and feisty, don’t tell me what to do nature put one in mind of Carrie Fisher’s similarly red-headed Princess Leah, of Star Wars. Both actors’ accents were convincing, and Holden’s had just a trace of a Valley girl's whine in it, rendering her delivery all the funnier, and a nice contrast to Lindsay's crusty Scotsman aka Shrek. U.S. comedian Richard Blackwell is, as you might expect, kick-ass funny and typically glib in his role as Donkey, yet definitely, nobody’s fool. His character actually reminded me of lots of guys I’ve known back in Philly who seemed as though they didn’t know the score, but were really, way ahead of the game. It might not be right for the rich to steal from the poor, but Nigel Harman as Lord Farquaad, the de-mythologizing prince charming who debunks the myth, easily stole every scene he was in, though his costume alone is long on laughs. It was actually a relief to see Harman rush out for his bows at the end of the show in fine fettle…My lips are sealed – in a smile!
Every actor in this great show gets their share of laughs, from stars and those with speaking parts of several lines, to one hit wonders who deliver riotously funny one-liners. Jonathan Stewart was, literally, a standout as Pinocchio, as was Ashley Hale’s Ugly Duckling and Karli Vale and Lucy Tapp in the roles of Fairy Godmother and Wicked Witch respectively. Even Peter Pan (Jon Scott Clark) stuck his blue haired? ore in, as did Ross Dawes in his many roles, one of which was reminiscent of Monty Python’s Eric Idle. Occasional allusions to famous long running musicals were wickedly funny in the hands of such competent actors.
There are also some especially fine narrative moments in the show, among them, a scene in which three actresses, representing the various stages of Princess Fiona’s imprisonment firstly, take turns, then sing ‘I Know It’s Today’ , a song about their hopes for the future, together. Which reminds me, there are some very good songs in Shrek with some very catchy melodies and, clever and witty lyrics…’Big, Bright Beautiful World’ for example, makes an excellent opener, allowing the story’s irony to emerge from the outset. Whereas, ‘Story of My Life’ while continuing along those lines, has a gentler humour. There‘s also some rug-pulling going on in the score, especially via ‘Forever’ which, I wrongly assumed would be a soppy love song from its title. In this case, I was definitely glad I was wrong! Upbeat ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ is like an updated take on ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ from Annie Get Your Gun, reflecting on the proverbial male-female power struggle also explored in musicals like My Fair Lady, only here, the concept is more earthed. Even the intentionally hippie-dippy ‘Morning Person’ is sung in such a way that it entertains, rather than grates. ‘When Words Fail’ a love song sung by none other but Shrek himself, is as lovely as a love song could be. But the singing and delivery of all of the numbers in the show is so exemplary that if no one from this cast wins an Olivier next year, we may have to get the Pied Piper on the case. Special accolades should be showered upon Jeanine Tesori for her marvelously spirited and witty musical score!
Tim Hatley’s set designs work wonders here, with settings shifting from a wonky bridge over a pool of smoking, molten lava, through tranquil countryside, scary forest, castle keep or grand court, and back again, with nary a murmur, as scenery silently but swiftly moves into place, from above, behind, below, the sides, or wherever, with a marvellous kind of now you see it, now you don’t precision. Hatley’s costumes also mimic those of the film, right down to bits we may have overlooked onscreen. Which made me think I should see the film again, just to see where the differences, if any lay, as Hatley’s work makes it seem as though a magnifying glass must have been put up to the original, in order to achieve such comic-book accuracy. But what would a transformation be without its accompanying magic? Proof of which was no doubt, furthered by Illusions consultant, Marshall Magoon who, along with makeup designer Naomi Dunn, works a kind of wizardry! Which brings us full circle, back to wonder-maker Tim Hatley again, who’s over-sized, flying dragon puppet brought cries of delight from kids of all ages! Last, but not least, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone sheds degrees of luminance or gloom on scenes in such a way that they oft look like frames in a rather beautiful animation, imbuing a sense of magical realism. Peter Hylenski’s varied, atmospheric sound design also helps to lend depth to this cracking production.
One of the main miracles of this enjoyable show is that even though 99.9% of us already know its’ storyline, right up to its surprise ending, its’ seamlessly joined components still manage to keep it fresh, and very funny! I honestly can’t remember when I’ve laughed more at a musical, or, had such a good time seeing one, and everyone around me seemed to be sharing that vibe! Another funny thing is that early on in the show, its’ amiable straightforwardness made me think of Avenue Q, and it turned out that one of Shrek’s directors , Jason Moore, not only directed the Tony nominated (9 of them) production of Shrek the Musical on Broadway, but also the West End production of Avenue Q as well, so I’d say Mr. Moore has a real knack for getting that fresh feeling across the footlights - a definite asset to this, or any other show he may work with in future. Likewise, Tony Award winning (Best Choreography - Broadway production of Thoroughly Modern Millie – 2002) co-director Rob Ashford, will no doubt, share honours with Moore for this wonderful show when the time comes.
Shrek the Musical’s characters retain their endearing, nobody’s perfect qualities here, right down to farting and burping contests between Shrek and Princess Fiona which the children especially enjoyed! It was great fun watching the kids around me identify with these scenes, as they acted as though it was their musical they were enjoying, which might have been true, were it not for the fact that the show’s just brimming with multi-layered humour, including the odd, cleverly worded innuendo designed to sail right over a child’s head, not to mention, a few topical social references, like Donkey’s comically unlikely nod to one David Beckham, which could easily change with the times. Happily, such modernities merely pepper, rather than coat this happy go lucky show, as it’s guiding hands are astute enough to know the score and keep things ‘real’, emphasizing the show’s motto that it’s better to find your own niche than force yourself into one. Which is in keeping with Shrek’s admirable be yourself ethics, as is my personal favourite song from the show, ‘Freak Flag’ a number with the potential to be taken up by self-professed misfits the world over.
In most musicals, the orchestra members are unsung heroes, as is undoubtedly the case here, so big applause and thanks to all those canny and talented musicians who heightened our journey through the whimsical, odd, comic, romantic and laugh out loud funny world of Shrek the Musical. Kudos too to (no ballet pun intended) choreographer and aptly named John Prince, whose raz-ma-taz Broadway moves wouldn’t have gone amiss in Oz, but work a treat here, as lame duck Ugly Duckling and extention - nosed Pinocchio and company tear into their ensemble numbers with all the enthusiastic high stepping of New York City's Rockettes, heightening both the comedy and sense of show biz in this notched up musical delight!
As if to highlight the show’s droll sense of understated humour, its’ online trailer merely features Shrek’s encore number, ‘I’m a Believer’, that Monkees’ sing-a-long favourite with a great big fairytale heart of gold. But I needed no more convincing - Shrek the Musical has my vote for West End musical of the year - double thumbs up. If you don’t believe me, go see it for yourself and you’ll be a believer too!
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