Members of the cast of Shrek: The Musical. Photo by Milan Radovanovic.
Members of the cast of Shrek: The Musical. Photo by Milan Radovanovic.

While it may push its kids-friendly premise to the limit, the Theatre Under the Stars production of Shrek: The Musical is still freak flag flying fun for the whole family.

[pullquote]Along with its strong leads, collectively the ensemble is simply the best thing to hit a Vancouver stage in some time.  And while we reviewers talk about enthusiasm helping to overcome some of the singing, acting and dancing problems that can befall amateur casts, this group doesn’t have a problem in any of these categories. [/pullquote]The thing about the Shrek film franchise is they have always known just how far to push things, with even the longest of the four movies only 93 minutes long.  In Shrek: The Musical however, David Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics and book) and Jeanine Tesori (music) have extended the story based on the first movie to the point where this production clocks in at a numb-bum three hours with intermission. No doubt its length was an attempt to justify the original $100+ Broadway ticket price tag, but where the films were created with youngsters in mind, this musical version does suffer from about as much bloat as one might expect from eating a couple of s’nothers.

More fairytale characters, less road trip.  One of the great things about fractured fairytales (think television’s Once Upon a Time or even the perennial Wicked) is in the celebration of its slightly twisted familiar characters.  Shrek is no different, with everyone from the Big Bad Wolf to Peter Pan making an appearance as they are summarily dumped in the ogre’s swamp after being evicted by the power-hungry Lord Farquaad.  Problem here is they simply don’t get enough stage time.  There is such an energy and excitement that is generated each time this large cast of misfits appears that it is almost enough to forgive the lulls that appear during Shrek, Fiona and Donkey’s road trip to Duloc.

Despite issues with a show that has about as much padding as Matt Palmer’s costume, there is some phenomenal talent on the Malkin Bowl stage (and I don’t throw the word phenomenal around very often) that makes it all worthwhile.

As the big green guy, Matt Palmer captures the heart of his character despite being laden with prosthetics, green paint and padded ogre suit.  And the man can sing too.  The ballad “Who I’d Be” is a beautiful closer to act one and the duet “I Think I Got You Beat” with Fiona in act two is enough to bring down the house (but then, who doesn’t like a good farting scene).  With a nod to Mike Meyers who voiced Shrek in the films, Palmer keeps the Scottish accent, but thankfully that is where any impersonation ends.

Lindsay Warnock as Fiona and Matt Palmer as Shrek in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Shrek: The Musical.  Photo by Milan Radovanovic.
Lindsay Warnock as Fiona and Matt Palmer as Shrek in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Shrek: The Musical. Photo by Milan Radovanovic.

As Fiona, Lindsay Warnock knocks it out of the Park and directly to a starring role on any of the major professional stages in the city.  With the comedic timing of a veteran, a crystal clear singing voice and energy to spare, she is simply unstoppable.  As the act two opener, “Morning Person” is one of the best songs of the night and “I Know It’s Today” with her younger selves, played by the equally talented Capril Everitt and Taylor McKee, is emotional and equally memorable.

As the diminutive wannabe king, Victor Hunter as Lord Farquaad makes the most out of the clever costume from designer Chris Sinosich.  Arguably the most difficult role of the show given he does his entire performance on his knees, Hunter captures the ridiculousness of his Halfling character.  And just wait until you see what he can do in the choreography department in the very funny “What’s Up, Duloc?” (his yoga training really does come in handy).

As Donkey, Ken Overbey brings the necessary sassiness in his full-body fur suit and again, while it is hard not to think Eddie Murphy, he too tries to steer clear from any sort of impersonation.  A great bluesy voice, he nails “Make a Move” as a hirsute Little Richards.

Then there is the rest of the fairytale menagerie that takes up almost a whole page in the oversized program.  Collectively the ensemble is simply the best thing to hit a Vancouver stage in some time.  And while we reviewers talk about enthusiasm helping to overcome some of the singing, acting and dancing problems that can befall amateur casts, this group doesn’t have a problem in any of those categories.  Without wanting to take anything away from any of these talented performers, highlights here include Charlie Deagnon, Jarret Cody and Liam Kearns in multiple roles, Stuart Barkley as the cross-dressing wolf, Michael Wilkinson as Pinocchio and Sharon Crandall as the Dragon.

Choreographer Julie Tomaino keeps this large cast busy with everything from tap-dancing rats to big production numbers that are varied and energetic.  Set designer Brian Ball keeps things simple with easily moveable set pieces and a few pop-up surprises.  Musical director Chris King brings out the best in his singers and orchestra and director Sarah Rodgers pulls it all together, managing to bring life to this linear story and its fictional characters.

Shrek: The Musical. Books and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the Dream Works Animation Motion Picture and the book by William Steig.  Directed by Sarah Rodgers. Musical direction by Christopher King. A Theatre Under the Stars production.  On stage at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park in rep with Legally Blonde: The Musical until August 23, 2014.  Visit http://tuts.ca for tickets and information.

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