If you don’t like Shrek: the Musical, I have to wonder if you’ve even seen it. Or maybe you have to see a community theater production to really get into it. I did see a professional version once and it wasn’t as good, but every community production I’ve been to or been in has been really enjoyable. Maybe it’s that the show’s message is about embracing differences, but Shrek is better when it’s done by “real” people. This is not to insult professional actors or non-professional actors, but there is a difference between the performances that the audience can feel, and this time the advantage is definitely not with the professionals.
Shrek, based on the animated film of the same name, is about a grumpy ogre who lives in a swamp. When the short, title-hungry Lord Farquaad evicts all magical creatures from their homes and dumps them on Shrek’s swamp, the ogre ends up going on a quest with a talking donkey to rescue a princess in exchange for the deed to his swamp. In the process, he discovers that he and Princess Fiona have more in common than he thought.
After so many Disney films of pretty (teenaged) princesses marrying pretty princes and defeating ugly villains, Shrek (the film) was a breath of fresh air. In this world, the ugly, gross ogre is the hero, and the fairies and puppets and other magical creatures are seen as weirdos by their human neighbors. Princess Fiona tries to be the perfect princess stereotype, but she knows martial arts and likes fart jokes--and ends up being the only princess who isn’t skinny (and one of the few that isn’t pale-skinned). While the other Shrek movies don’t always live up to the first one, it’s not hard to see why the story has had such a lasting effect.
Open Door Community Theatre put on Shrek in June as their first ever show. As I understand it, the company is funded by sponsorships from local companies and ticket proceeds for each production will go to a non-profit--in this case, the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf. This isn’t the first group I’ve known to use local sponsors, but by recognizing them so prominently (on stage before the show and in the program) and donating the ticket money, Open Door is making a strong statement out of the gate about how engaged with the community they are and intend to be.
I’ve seen this musical many times and have performed in it more than once, so you’ll have to excuse me if I get into too fine of details. But the thing that surprised me the most in this production and made me very happy was the group that played Farquaad’s guards and the bearded knights in the dragon’s tower. I have never seen a production do these bits so well. The guards had a real sense of group identity and the bearded knights were so well-balanced that their harmonies as back-up singers to the dragon came through perfectly. In other productions I’ve seen, these characters have been left as an afterthought, and their backup singing suffers either because of the actors’ performances or sound mixing, so I have to applaud all involved, especially sound technician Rich Passmore for bringing out what I haven’t gotten from any other version of this show. Another thing I’ve never seen before is that the guards performed the “Welcome to Duloc” song and dance. It was very silly and I loved it.
As Shrek, Steve Modena brought a lot of vocal talent and the Scottish accent that is essential to the character. He had very nice chemistry with Fiona and really came into his own in the second act with an emotional performance of “Build a Wall.” Gabriel Gomez as the Donkey brought a lot of laughs and was a strong singer. He had no trouble keeping up with the non-stop lyrics in “Don’t Let Me Go,” a song that is bound to leave anyone breathless. The two actors were fun to watch together and played off each other well.
Brooklyn Schwiesow was pitch-perfect as Princess Fiona, the almost-Disney princess. Schwiesow was a little neurotic, a little demanding and laser-focused, and hard not to root for. Dan Stephans played the show’s smallest character, the diminutive Lord Farquaad, but managed to be the most larger-than-life. His performance was full of personality and attitude and he was amazing in every scene he was in. Another powerhouse was Kayla Kauffman as Dragon. Her performance of “Forever” blew the audience away and her stage presence was incredibly engaging. And she did it all while wearing scaffolding for a dragon head!
The rest of the cast played all the fairy tale creatures and townspeople, and there were many standout moments. Anders Nelson as Pinocchio and Abigail H. Peterson as Gingy brought a lot of attitude and spirit to their characters. During “Freak Flag,” there was one powerful belt after another from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Cyndi Sturtz), the Wicked Witch (Stacey Dolan), and Kayla Kauffman coming back as some sort of creature. Maybe a fairy? I wasn’t bothered by the insertion because the song was extraordinary. Another notable figure was Lewis Youngren, who played the Wolf, the Pied Piper, and the Bishop, and was a featured dancer in “What’s Up Duloc?” and “Morning Person.” His dance moves were impressive and as the Bishop he was very funny (which is rare for this character). As a group the fairy tale creatures were very good. There was a lot of individuality in the characters and they also worked well together as a group. This is where the staging makes the most difference, and director Lenore Weir did great work balancing the individual characters and the crowd. One moment I appreciated was that in “Freak Flag,” individual fairy tale creatures got into the message at different times, so it was a gradual build to all the characters dancing together.
Musically the show was mostly strong. The singers and the orchestra worked well together under music director Jerry Williams and vocal director Lori Sager (with Mary Reimann as assistant vocal director). One quirk of this production is that the actors played instruments in certain songs. The first time this happened was during “Travel Song,” when the Mad Hatter played the ukelele. It was a little confusing in the scene and unfortunately her performance was hard to hear over the other instruments. The addition of instruments during “I’m a Believer” worked much better because it was outside of the plot and most of the additions were horns. It’s very convenient for the group that some of the actors are that talented and could give the final song such a big sound.
DeAnne Sherman was choreographer, Michelle Sherman assistant choreographer. The dancing was very fun and was done well. I do wish the rat dance in “Morning Person” had been a tap number, but it’s a smart decision to just change the dance if there weren’t enough actors with tap experience. The costumes were designed by Mary Wellman and had some interesting surprises. The main characters were appropriated dressed like the film characters (except for some sparkle added to Farquaad’s hat). There was an early scene with townspeople dressed in jeans which I didn’t like, although I’m sure it’s a hassle to add a bunch of new costumes for a 20-second bit. The fairy tale creatures had a lot of nice costume features, including the Wolf’s glamorous red dress later in the show and candy-like decorations on Gingy’s dress. The scene with the Duloc townspeople surprised me; usually costumers go in the direction of bright, garish primary colors, similar to the film, but Wellman dressed the cast in tabards (“sleeveless jerkins consisting of only the front and back pieces with a hole for the head” for the non-nerd) over leggings and long sleeves, and glittery silver pom-pom wigs. At first I was taken aback, mainly because of how shiny the wigs appeared in the light, but the combined look really did make it hard to identify individuals, and that’s the whole point of Farquaad enforcing a dress code! It wasn’t long before I was fully on board.
The set was designed by George Juaire and wasn’t too complicated but satisfied the main requirements of the show: a tower for Fiona and a wall that Lord Farquaad can go up and hang his tiny (fake) legs over (if any production fails to include this moment I will be very disappointed). In this case, the two structures were two sides of the same piece, and I am always a fan of a double-sided set piece. A lot of use was made of the main curtains and I would have liked to see more use of the cyc (the flat curtain at the back that takes lighting) as a backdrop, but this is an opinion fueled by too many curtain-heavy school productions.
Overall the production was very enjoyable and a very strong introduction to the new company. I look forward to seeing what’s next for Open Door.