Review : 'Shrek the Musical' at the Plaza Theatre Company

Joel Taylor

 Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Shrek The Musical is based on the animated motion picture by Dream Works, starring the unforgettable vocal talents of Mike Myers as Shrek, Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Cameron Diaz as Fiona, and John Lithgow as Lord Farquaad. 

As with the animated movie, the musical version is also set in the land of Far, Far Away where mythical storybook creatures do exist and are a part of everyday life. The musical tells the story through song on how Shrek came to live alone with no family in the swamp he called home. Important elements early in the story show why Shrek became cynical and chose to avoid others. It also shows how Princess Fiona came to be placed in a castle guarded by a fire-breathing, talking and singing female dragon. Following the storyline of the animated film, Shrek’s swamp home is overrun by a host of storybook characters, including Pinocchio, The Big Bad Wolf, The Three Little Pigs, The Three Bears, Peter Pan, Tinkerbell The Gingerbread Man, and many other magical storybook characters that are seeking refuge from the evil Lord Farguaad. With the help of Shrek, Donkey and Princess Fiona, the dastardly lord Farquaad is brought to his knees.

Luke Hunt directs Plaza Theatre’s production in Cleburne. The performance space is in the round, and Hunt effectively uses the limited space and a very large cast to present a colorful, lively, and very popular story. Some of the challenges inherent in the space include using a staging area that, at first glance, appears much too small to use for large casts. However, by effectively using all available entrances and exits, good placement of characters on stage and character involvement with the story, Hunt deftly defies the challenge as he uses the entire area for acting scenes and dance numbers. 

Much of the performance in this production takes place in the center area of the set designed by JacSon P. Barrus. The set is largely bare with a raised platform that rotates. There are splashes of swamp green on otherwise black walls. While most of the performance takes place center stage, some of the performance happens in a corner with a doorway that doubles as a castle gate, while another corner is designed for entrances and exits. This area also includes a rotating flat that can be turned to represent different locations such as the swamp, castle, or a town setting in Duloc.

Plaza Theatre Company

Plaza Theatre Company

Costuming Costume Designer, Tina Barrus, and Makeup Designer Maria Bautista combine styles in a variety of colors, designs and styles, some whimsical and some practical, to enhance the stereotypical characterizations of the magical creatures in the land of Far Far Away. The costume and character makeup choices are some of the many highlights of the production. Barrus uses the expected dress for Fiona, a shimmering green with regal appearance. Shrek is costumed identical to the animated film version, with loose pants, loose shirt and darker-colored vest. Each of the magical and mythical characters from the land of Far Far Away wears costumes to match their character. Each is easily identifiable and wonderfully stereotypically dressed. Peter Pan is in green with a pointed cap that sports a feather. The Wicked Wtch has loose dark clothing, tall pointed hat and crooked broom, The Mad Hatter comes straight out of Alice in Wonderland, The White Rabbit is in a full bunny suit attire complete with bunny ears, while Donkey wears a grey body suit with tall ears and tail. Lord Farquaad dresses very similar to the animated film, including his tall hat and black wig. As the character is extremely short, the actor wears black leggings and knee pads to disguise his actual height. Bautista designs makeup for each character that also clearly defines each character, from Donkey’s grey face or Shrek’s green face to each of the myriad of magical creatures that we are familiar with from bedtime stories as children.

Lighting Designer Cameron Barrus uses a wide spectrum of colors for the variety of scenes and locations in the story. Specialized choices are made for the swamp, Duloc, the forest, or in the castle with the fire-breathing dragon. 

Likewise, Sound Designer G. Aaron Siler provides just the right amount of sound, such as the ogre roars from Shrek, roars and sounds of flame from Dragon and the sounds of birds while Shrek, Donkey and Fiona are on their travels. I did not notice any lapse in sound, and the volume was easily heard and understood in the intimate space at Plaza.

Choreographer Rachel Hunt does remarkable work with the dance numbers in the production. Hunt uses the space and movement to enhance the elements of the story as it unfolds. Whether it is with only between Fiona and Shrek in “I Think I Got You Beat”, or scenes with the cast off characters in “Whats Up Duloc?”, “Make a Move”, and “Forever”; the tap dance sequence with the Rats, or “Freak Flag” and the movements of the Dragon and Skeletons in their respective scenes, Hunt incorporates simplified to complex choreography that makes the audience want to either sit back and appreciate the intricate movements or stand, as young audience members did, and dance along with the characters in the story.

I could write well deserved paragraphs about each actor onstage for this production. Unfortunately, time and publishing space are not sufficient to recognize each of the cast and characters that make Shrek so enjoyable to watch and experience. While there is a moment or two when an actor may not have a complete connection to the character in a particular scene, all of them, leads or ensemble, are actively engaged in the story. 

Kelly Nickell plays Pinocchio with a good balance of charm, sincerity and mischievousness. Working with an elongated, expandable nose, Nickell uses a higher pitched voice and body movements to indicate a slight limitation in movement, therefore creating the illusion of being both a wooden puppet and a complete human boy. Nickell’s timing and vocal understanding of Pinocchio makes this an enjoyable and noticeable character to watch.

Teen Fiona is played by Eden Barrus. While only briefly seen on stage as younger Fiona, Barrus carries herself as a young princess. Her vocal skills when singing “I Know It’s Today” or in duet with the other Fiona is strong and pleasant and blends well with the voices of the younger and older Fionas. As one of the performing Blind Mice, Barrus along with LeAnn Indolos, JoAnna Phillips, and Julia Wood, sing and move together as one with a confidence and skill that suggests they have professional experience as a singing group.

Duloc Dancers Kelly Nickell, Cessany Ford, Eden Barrus, Mclain Meachem, Rylee Mullen, Julia Ward, and Ashleigh Moss are seen in when Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc. Each girl is dressed in the same style that includes yellow plastic wigs, plastic shirts and skirts that gives the impression they are perfect plastic dolls. During the song “Whats Up Duloc”, the dancers perform well together, working in synchronization, like machine parts working together with limited humanity. 

Dashiell Maddox plays Bishop who performs the marriage ceremony between Farquaad and Fiona. His tall ecclesiastical hat certainly has the look of a church official. When pronouncing the wedding vows, Maddox uses a lisp and a voice that reminds me of the priest officiating the wedding in the film “Robin Hood Men in Tights”. While this is a funny choice, his voice, youthful appearance and demeanor are a slight detractor from achieving full comedic effect.

Marquel Dionne plays Dragon. I would assume, due to the space, Dragon is created to be taller than it is long. The main body of the dragon is controlled by a puppeteer. Dionne walks in front of the main body wearing large green and gloves with talons that are painted to look like dragon skin. As Dragon, Dionne menacingly waves her dragon hands as if to warn or attack. The Dragon puppet creation is impressive and will capture attention. Though, when Dionne sings, her rich, powerful and cultured voice will mesmerize and capture attention equally as much. As with several other actors in this production that play multiple roles, Freddy Martinez plays both Papa Ogre and Thelonius. As Papa Ogre, Martinez is unrecognizable in green face paint, funnel ears and the same style of costume Shrek is later seen in as an adult. As Papa Ogre, Martinez physically fits the mold of a large menacing creature. Though, when he and Mama Ogre are sending young Shrek off in the “Big Bight Beautiful World” I expected him to be more menacing. As Thelonius, assistant and right hand man to Lord Farquaad. Martinez plays him with a stoic demeanor and deadpan line delivery, which adds to the humor and counters the sometimes manic actions of Farquaad. . Donkey is played by Jonathan Metting. Whereas a real donkey walks around on four legs, He uses a wide range of body postures, arm movement and vocal variety to make his own the character Eddie Murphy made so famous in the animated film. Metting effectively incorporates non-verbal communications such as a tilt of the head, a stare or a prance, as well as sarcasm, wit, a pleading or indignant tone to be the lovable yet irritating Donkey that a generation grew up loving.

Clyde Berry, playing the role of Farquaad, spends much of his time onstage walking on his knees to give the appearance of a very short character. For those not familiar with this character, Farquaad may be short of stature but large of ego, arrogant, demanding and slightly sadistic when torturing and threatening Gingy (Gingerbread Man) in order to find the location of Princess Fiona. While John Lithgow voiced the film role with sarcasm and droll humor, Berry appears to take elements of Lithgow’s interpretation and adds a little manic style of his own. This creates a very menacing and manic performance of a man that relishes threatening his minions but plays up the outrageous humor of seeing a full grown man pretending to be a powerful, threatening little person. Berry maximizes the comedic contradiction with well-placed manic laughter and a consistent threatening tone. Berry gives the audience a Farquaad that audience children of all ages will love to hate.

The role of Princess Fiona is double cast, Daron Cockerell playing her on the reviewed performance. Cockerell more than fulfills the expectation of how the princess should look. Her long dress shimmers in the light and, for the most part, her graceful mannerisms are of a fairytale princess. The exception is when she wants to flee from Shrek and Donkey as the sun sets and she is delayed from finding a place by herself. It is then that she becomes more insistent as is seen with a stomp of the foot, glare to Shrek and Donkey and much more stern and demanding tone in the voice Cockerell is an experienced actor that skillfully transitions Fiona between the charming fairytale Princess and her alter ego. Watching Cockerell onstage, you well believe that you are watching reality on stage rather than just an actor playing the role of a character.

Shrek is well played by G. Aaron Siler. Ogres are large, green and always scary, that is except when an ogre secretly has a kind and caring heart, which can create a conflict when the mean, rude, green Ogre falls for the beautiful princess. Siler not only accepts the challenge of showing the multiple layers of this ogre, he excels in allowing the audience to see and experience the complexity of Shrek. The scene in which he attempts to explain to Donkey that ogres are like onions is well delivered with an earnestness that gradually transitions to frustration. Siler uses his body actions and certain attitude for his walk, occasional swagger and purposeful strides to convey the physicality of Shrek, while also allowing his voice to carry real emotion. At times, the Scottish accent Siler uses is inconsistent, but this minor flaw is overlooked with the more complete connection Siler has with his character.

The connection between Siler as Shrek and Cockerell as Fiona is apparent throughout the performance. This connection between the characters enhances the believability of the story. One such example is the touching and lovely interaction between Shrek and Fiona during the song “I Think I Got You Beat”, as each tells the story of their life as a child growing up in the swamp or in the Dragon’s Castle. Each actor skillfully demonstrates an understanding of their character to show sadness, regret, boasting, and ultimately empathy and a little understanding of the other. 

For those few that have not seen the immensely popular film or musical, you should first watch the animated movie and then experience the musical. The movie includes such great vocal talent and animated characters that entranced the young and young at heart for over a decade. The musical includes songs, dances, choreography and entertaining acting that bring the audience more intimately into the story unfolding on stage. As I was watching the opening night performance, I saw people of all ages in the audience. Some sang along with the songs, and some knew the lines spoken by heart. Several children in the audience had come to the performance wearing a costume of one of the characters while a few of the young audience stood near their seats and danced away. One young Shrek in the audience made his way to the stage and danced with the cast during the closing oung Princess Fionas and a few young Shreks. During some of the dance numbers number.

Plaza Theatre’s cast is very energetic and enthusiastic, and with colorful costumes, some great singing, and talented acting, it all adds up to a lot of FUN. It reminds me of what it is to be a kid again, or still be a kid, and just enjoy a good story with a happy ending. This is a musical that should be seen and seen soon as I would expect tickets to sell out once word gets out how fun it is.

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