When I left a Thursday matinee of “Shrek the Musical,” which was full of school groups ranging from fifth graders to university upperclassmen, kindergartners to distinguished senior citizens, I couldn’t stop smiling. Judging by the other smiles I saw, it seemed like the whole audience was in rare agreement. Here’s what you need to know: The show is incredible, and it might just be the best thing you’ll ever see at the Barter.
OK, maybe “ever” is too strong — after all, with such strong direction and a cast that continues to impress, there will likely be some dazzling gems on the way for Barter Theatre, maybe even as soon as this season. But sometimes you have to reach for “ever” when you’re trying to describe something as joyous, effortless and inventive as “Shrek the Musical,” which premiered in May and — thankfully — has several more months to run (the show closes Aug. 25). That’s plenty of time to go check it out for yourself, and I promise you’ll be smiling the whole way through.
Almost 20 years have gone by since DreamWorks’ animated film, “Shrek,” debuted, smashing together fart jokes and fairy tales and creating a signature, irreverent brand of humor that launched five films, several holiday specials and a Broadway musical. The basic premise sets ornery, misanthropic ogre Shrek out on a quest to rescue a princess from a lonely tower guarded by a dragon. He picks up a clingy, talking donkey along the way, who seems to believe, in spite of Shrek’s best efforts to shake him, that they’re going to be best friends. Once they make it to the tower, they find that Princess Fiona has gone a little stir-crazy in the decades she’s spent trapped there, and she might be more of a headache than she’s worth.
“Shrek” has always been memorable primarily for its naughty humor and dark, imaginative twists on fairy tales, where nobody has the perfectly pure motives they seem to have in the storybooks. Maybe the Big Bad Wolf secretly loves cross-dressing and couldn’t think of a better way to get started than to take on Granny’s identity. Maybe princesses sleeping on huge piles of mattresses because they can’t stand a pea-sized lump is actually a pretty dangerous way of getting a good night’s sleep. Just like the film, “Shrek the Musical” delights in shifting our expectations at every turn and making us see fairy tales and nursery rhymes in new ways.
The show’s got some great embedded strengths — the script takes the best of the original’s memorable jokes and gives us a better sense of the characters’ deepest fears, making them even more heartbreaking than we remember them. But while the show takes its characters and their heartaches seriously, it doesn’t miss any chances for great gags, making it hilarious for both kids and adults. I don’t want to spoil the comedic moments too much, but the appearance of the Three Blind Mice as backup dancers wearing flapper dresses and waving their canes around really got me.
The cast has some big shoes to fill (the original voice cast included Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow), but they succeed in bringing the characters’ huge personalities to life. Sean Maximo Campos does an uncanny Eddie Murphy impression while making Donkey his own. Kim Morgan Dean is an insane ball of energy that brings a wonderful spark to Princess Fiona, and Zacchaeus Kimbrell adds so many soft, sweet touches to Shrek that will tear at your heart. Oh, and Samuel Floyd’s Lord Farquaad is simply hysterical. The ensemble, too, can’t get enough praise playing an assortment of fairy tale characters, all while singing, tapping and puppeteering. Barter pulls out all the stops to make the show feel larger-than-life, and it’s an absolute feast for your eyes and ears.
But beyond the spectacle, what makes “Shrek” so good is that it’s a fairy tale that doesn’t force its feel-good glow. We all get a little cynical and bitter and too careful with our hearts. We get afraid to shout about what we love, for fear that someone’s going to throw that love back in our face and find some way to make it hurt.
And boy, do the characters in “Shrek” get hurt. At the start of the play, they seem close to admitting that “happily ever after” ain’t ever coming for them. The princess in the tower may never find her true love, an ogre may never know acceptance amid pitchfork-happy villagers, and Pinocchios and Peter Pans and Pied Pipers may never quite fit into a world that views them as freaks. “Shrek the Musical” leans into an upside-down fairy tale world where the heroes from the stories are all just a little mixed-up, where they wear their trauma like armor. In “I Think I Got You Beat,” Princess Fiona and Shrek trade barbs about whose childhood was worse, and it rings true. We forget how rough fairy tales can get — with maiming and death and curses around every corner.
In “Shrek the Musical,” we get to see the aftershocks of those punishments and see how characters can still strive for happiness in a world that seems to always reject them. When the characters tentatively start examining how they feel about one another, they get to be honest about how rare and wonderful it is to find someone who knows and accepts you. When Shrek sings, “I spent my life stuck in the mud / Now I’m crawling out on a limb,” we cheer. Daring to love — and to admit to the people closest to you that they matter — is what the show is all about, and Barter’s production earns every magic moment.