This summer, Foothill Music Theatre (FMT) shows its heart with its rendition of Shrek The Musical. The show is based on the animated DreamWorks film, Shrek, and it puts all of the magic and message of the film live on stage. The musical version (with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori) debuted on Broadway in 2008 and in London in 2011. Since then, the show continues to be a family-friendly audience favorite as it now makes the rounds in regional and community theatres.
The story is, in broad strokes, a sassy mashup of traditional fairy tales mixed with some current events. Its well-known Freak Flag anthem packs a powerful, positive message about celebrating one’s uniqueness. The lively story turns the traditional boy meets girl theme on its head with a clever twist and sends audiences home in high spirits.
FMT has a solid production featuring a well-honed, energetic cast topside, and a polished band of musicians adding their melodious strains from under the stage. Andrew Ross leads the action on-stage as Shrek, the grown-up ogre who has his peaceful swamp inundated with displaced, misfit fairy tale characters. They inform him that they’ve been banished to his swamp by the evil Lord Farquaad of Duloc (Joey McDaniel). In an effort to return to his solitary swamp existence, he agrees to help them deal with Farquaad.
Along the way, Shrek picks up a wise-cracking donkey sidekick named Donkey (Nick Kenrick) who he just can’t seem to get rid of. After meeting the evil ruler, Shrek strikes a deal to find the Princess Fiona (Jocelyn Pickett) and bring her back to Duloc. In return, Farquaad agrees to remove the misfits from Shrek’s swamp. Of course nothing goes quite according to plan, but that’s the fun of an imaginative adventure story after all.
Ross is wonderful as the adult Shrek. He has a comfortable and fluid manner, dons a more convincing Scottish accent than the original movie Shrek, and plays a sympathetic unintended hero. He has a presence that is clearly capable of dominating a scene, but he plays a nuanced character, never overstating his position but instead endearing himself to both the audience and his newfound friends.
Kenrick is exquisite as Donkey, truly making an “ass” of himself in all the right ways. His physical comedy is picture perfect from his facial expressions to his preening, slinking, slithering, and cozying up to his new pals. His wise-cracks are extremely well-timed as is his musicianship which gets to shine through in an unexpected way at one point.
Pickett strikes a nice balance between sweet, demanding, and terrified in her portrayal of Fiona. Pickett and Ross have great chemistry together, at first bristling at one another. They eventually spark an eclectic and electric connection through an unexpected mutual appreciation for each other’s unique expressiveness.
Together, Ross, Kenrick, and Pickett make a charming trio. They evoke strong emotional reactions from the audience, and their evolving character relationships and eventual comradery are both humorous and extremely touching.
McDaniel captures Farquaad’s evil temperament while “standing” only four feet tall. Kudos to his physicality and comic timing in this role. It’s tough to strike a commanding presence from waist-height, but McDaniel does it well.
Lynn Grant’s scenic design includes a runway extension around the pit to help with traveling scenes. This also decreases the scene change downtime overall since actors can continue the action on the extension while sets are being moved around upstage. There is a tradeoff though. Because there are some awkward stairs or seams, a few of the actors sometimes take a stutter-step onto and off of the extension momentarily slowing the action.
Most of the scenic design has a slightly cartoonish aspect to it, though not excessively so. The one background that seems a bit more abstract than the rest and is just slightly out of place as a result is the forest/swamp tree background. The giant Shrek and Fiona storybooks that adorn stage left and stage right respectively are nicely done. Farquaad’s castle is also a useful and visually evocative construct enhancing both the character and the setting letting the evil ruler perch high above his subjects.
Julie Englebrecht’s colorful costume design works well. The leads and fairy tale characters are easily recognizable, and the thematic costumes of the guards, Duloc subjects, and rats provide a nice, slightly satirical, effect.
Milissa Carey’s stage direction (assisted by AD Michael Weiland) is very clean in this production. Combined with Riette Burdick’s and Deb Leamy’s choreography, the stage presentation is breathtaking at times. The dancing is extremely well executed and very tight, and the blocking presents many lovely stage pictures and believable action.
From the ensemble perspective, Dragon’s presentation is of note. The use of an immense puppet, manned by four very capable puppeteers, is delicious. During Dragon’s song, Forever, Donkey is pursued and gets very wrapped up. Dragon’s expressiveness seen on stage is impressive, all the while being voiced by Jennifer Martinelli in grand fashion. The audience members don’t see Martinelli until much later, but they feel and hear her presence through her voice, and through her giant, visual alter ego.
Rick Reynolds’ orchestra is extremely solid. Although slightly stripped down from the full touring orchestration, the mix still works. Four parts are either combined into other books or pushed to a synth, but the requisite acoustic players including two reeds, three brass, and an acoustic orchestral string are used with the cadre of electronic instrumentalists to achieve a rich and balanced blended sound.
On opening night, there were a few sound issues. Some mic cues were either missed entirely or were late causing some voices to be dropped in a few places. In addition to some missed cues, the balance between the vocals and the orchestra allowed a few singers to be drowned out on occasion, and the ogre roar was also slightly mistimed. Hopefully these issues will be cleaned up pretty quickly.
In addition to the sound hiccups, a few ensemble characters face some challenges. In particular, Pinocchio (Victor Velasquez) and Gingy (Melissa Costa) are occasionally hard to understand because of their character voices, but their presentation makes their characters’ intentions clear.
Shrek The Musical tells a welcome story in these challenging times. The tale is suitable for the entire family, and while there are a few tense moments in the middle of the story, eventually all is as it should be in a glorious celebratory ending. This is a feel-good show with a rockin’ score and a very eager company ready to welcome everyone to enjoy the ride as they let their Freak Flag fly!
What: Shrek The Musical
Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos, CA 94022
When: Continues through 6 August 2017, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.
See www.foothill.edu/theatre or call (650)949-7360 for tickets or more information.
(Photos courtesy of Foothill Music Theatre)