Shrek: The Musical is based on the highly successful 2001 Dreamwork’s film and part of the wide-reaching franchise it created. Originally opening on Broadway, after a trial run in Seattle, in 2008 the show was revamped for a West End production to open in 2011. Since these two runs, the show has toured frequently and is re-developed for each of these tours. Depicting Shrek the ogre’s journey from cynical solitude to social stardom via a quest to rescue a princess who is more than the stereotype with the aid of the hyper-active Donkey, Shrek: The Musical depicts fairytale characters in a starkly different light than the nostalgia of childhood.
This trend means that, even though I am a huge fan of the original Broadway show thanks to the DVD and soundtrack capturing the amazing original cast of Brain D’arcy James, Sutton Foster and Daniel Breaker, I was excited to return to the Bristol Hippodrome to see the new 2017/18 UK tour after seeing the show four years ago on the previous tour. Due to these developments, I’ll be reviewing any narrative and musical changes present in this particular production and, partly, how it holds up to the original which inspired my love for this show as a whole. Therefore, this review is particular to this touring production.
This tour sees the introduction of Stephen Harri to the role of Shrek, the titular Ogre. Harri has a wonderful singing voice and in the thankfully untouched ‘Who I’d Be’, ‘When Words Fail’ and the ‘Big Bright Beautiful World’ solo and reprise given to Shrek you do see glimpses of his ability to blend emotions with belting. However, in this particular production Shrek’s character feels far too soft. During Act One I never felt that he had a grudge against his situation or that he was annoyed with Marcus Ayton’s Donkey. One of my favourite numbers in Act Two, ‘Build a Wall’, was one of many casualties to this new production as it was cut entirely. In my opinion, not only did this limit the opportunities to hear Harri’s talents but also really hindered the grit which is integral to Shrek’s character. Instead, we are left with a character arc for Shrek which feels more like a casual stroll rather than an emotional rollercoaster.
Samuel Holmes takes on the unique challenges which come with playing Lord Farquaad. He very quickly became a favourite member of the cast for me as he effortlessly remained on his knees to create the vertically challenged villain. When singing effortlessly, keeping up his accent and a surprising amount of dancing, including interesting shifts in his height, all whilst on his knees he is a truly impressive performer. Personally, I also think it’s interesting to see how a performer reacts in a situation where something has gone wrong. Ironically seconds before the reference to Wicked, Holmes had to improvise during a lift malfunction. Luckily the list stopped high enough that he could simply pop onto his feet, rather than staying on his knees, and continue with the reference, however, it was his initial reaction of pointing up off stage which felt truly like it was still Lord Farquaad was demanding he be raised higher than the lift could go.
Amelia Lily joins the cast as Princess Fiona for this leg of the tour and she really gives her all in her acting and lovely vocals. She is certainly far more clear-cut in her humour shifting from comedic to serious from moment to moment. Overall, Lily is part of a cast where the female voices truly stand out and even overshadow some of their male co-stars. Jennifer Tierney deserves a very special mention for making me watch ‘Freak Flag’ with an open mouth as her powerful, clear, lovely voice suddenly appeared and continued to be supported by Francesca Williams (Baby Bear) and Laura Wilson (Witch). However, the actress who starts, and continues, this trend I noticed in the cast is Lucinda Shaw as Dragon and later as Fairy Godmother. She really was a stand out performance as Dragon’s solo ‘Forever’ was beautifully sung and she ensured to stand out and effortlessly contribute to the leading female enable during ‘Freak Flag’. She even made a lovely personal appearance as Dragon, in an absolutely stunning dress which needs to be seen by any theatrical costume lovers, during ‘I’m a Believer’ and she just continued to stand out. I will certainly be following her career after this show.
Staying on the note of Dragon, I will always keep an eye on this show throughout its lifetime as I am a great lover of puppetry in theatre. I will be the first to admit that the original Broadway Dragon puppet, whilst impressive in scale, left a lot to be improved on technically. I was amazed at how far the Dragon puppet has come when I saw Tim Hatley’s design. The movements were very fluid and natural and the puppeteers are very impressive, especially given the costumes they need to puppeteer in. I would say that, if you love theatrical puppetry this much, it would be worth seeing the show simply for Dragon between the puppetry design and Lucinda Shaw’s voice.
However, there are two major creative changes need to be discussed here as they cause the show to deviate drastically from any previous production of Shrek. Firstly, the Magic Mirror has been completely cut. In the original Broadway production the Magic Mirror was done via motion facial capture technology and offered an effortless transition from Lord Farquaad into Princess Fiona’s most famous song ‘I Know it’s Today’. While I understand that this technology may have presented financial and practical difficulties whilst touring, I felt that the character was missed. Not only did he provide quite a few one-liners but that transition was heavily affected. Following this cut, ‘I Know it’s Today’ needed to be changed away from the ‘backstory’ feature originally provided by the Mirror. Their attempt to overcome this was to cut child and teenager Princess Fiona and instead shorten the song drastically and add puppets of princesses made by Fiona. This change really does not work. Especially given that this song is one of the most well known from the show and that the harmonies of the three actresses are often a major highlight of performances of Shrek they were very sorely missed. Also, while I would normally love the introduction of more puppets, the design and vocal placements of these puppets were quite jarring and you could see the backstage situation that led to their inclusion rather than seeming natural.
Personally, I think that there were a few creative decisions which harmed the pace of the show. While most comedic moments are recognisable either from the hit film or original production, the dialogue has also been changed and updated in several ways. I must admit that the dialogue often felt slower and a little stilted in places. Following this some updated references, such as one to Love Island, it felt simply that the comedic value of this did not land with the audience as much as the references kept in from earlier instalments of the franchise. Also, while the majority of the sets were of a very high quality, I felt that the projections used during the show were a little over the top. I felt that the moments of lighting during the show were very well done and I would have felt that the moments which used projections would have been more intuitive and polished if the same effect had been carried out with lighting.
Therefore, I’m giving this production three out of five stars. While I feel that there are a lot of positive aspects to this production, certain creative decisions simply proved to hinder the show from capturing the magic which ensured the original production’s success. Changes to particular songs, dialogue and character development resulted in the show landing closer to a pantomime in tone. However, certain members of the cast and puppetry design ensured that my eyes were always glued to the stage and my ears loved hearing all of the gorgeous singing voices throughout.
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