Left – Ben Mingay. Cover – Ben Mingay, Nat Jobe, Lucy Durack. Photos – Brian Geach
I took my daughter, aged 7, to see Shrek the Musical at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney. I was nervous – Shrek is one of the all-time great animations. The story of a giant ogre who sets off on his own to defend his right to be left alone in his swamp. The story ends with him in his swamp but alone he is not. Along the way he finds love and friendship and realises that a solitary life is not something to seek. He finds connection and kinship with Fiona and Donkey. One is a princess who, like most fairy tale damsels, starts in a tower, waiting for true loves kiss to break a curse; the other a donkey with a quick witted tongue and a heart that can melt an ogre. The unlikely companions discover beauty beneath the skin and the intrinsic need that everybody has for family. But you can’t talk about Shrek without mentioning Lord Farquaad. The tiny terror who, although only knee high to a grasshopper, has a towering ego and is extraordinarily unpleasant.
I loved the film. I loved the adult humour that went over little heads. I loved the crude humour that made the little heads loll with laughter. I loved the meta conversation about fairytales in a movie about fairytales. I loved each character for their sense of self. I could write for ages about how much I loved the movie. My point is that with such high expectation’s I knew that I was going to be a hard critic. I took my daughter as ballast to ensure that my bias didn’t blind me.
The opening scenes of Shrek the Musical were such fun. They both honoured the original movie and added new layers to the story. A giant book projected onto the stage had heads that comically popped in and out. They told us how Shrek found himself in a swamp, when at the age of 7 he was told (as all Ogres are) to go away and not come back. One of the best things about this stage production is the way that it adds to the story. We find out about Shrek’s family and why he is the way he is. We also find out that Lord Farquaad’s dad is Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ fame. These fresh parts of the story are so well told that they fold seamlessly into the one we know so well.
It’s a thrill when you first see the fairy-tale-folk heading through the forest. Pinocchio with his tell-tale high pitched voice and his perfect nose that grows with every lie. Fairies and wicked witches, trios of bears and pigs, Peter Pan and Big Bad Wolf. They are all there with wonderfully bright costumes cleverly complimenting prosthetics and puppetry. Costume designer, Tim Hatley’s masterful creations cast the first spell in the opening scene and it works. I am captivated.
That first spark is followed by a slower burn and I begin to feel some trepidation. But before disappointment settles in Lord Farquaad enters and I am enlivened. Todd McKenney’s portrayal is beyond brilliant. He embodies everything we love about this rapscallion. His expressive face beams and tells its own story when he speaks. Mimicking Farquaad’s short stature means McKenney spends most of the production on his knees with an extraordinary set of costumes required.
McKenney as Lord Farquaad holds my hope long enough for me to stay with the production until Princess Fiona arrives. Lucy Durack as Fiona is dynamite. Her voice is bombastic and she has perfect comic timing. She has one of my favourite dance scenes when she tap dances with some rats and it is a joy to watch.
Whereas McKenney as Lord Farquaad gives you what you want and is the closest to the movie version, Durack as Fiona manages to make the role her own. She does make you believe. I believed her portrayal of a princess isolated in a tower having to pee in a chamber pot and her acknowledgment that it may have made her a little mad.
The other stand out character is Dragon. The design and execution of Dragon’s costume was extraordinary. The puppetry was flawless and the Dragon’s presence was palpable with the indomitable voice of Marcia Hines.
Shrek is a hard role as the iconic character we know and love is almost impossible to emulate. However Ben Mingay did an amazing job of keeping the heart of the show and managing to perform whilst in full Shrek prosthetics and make up for over two hours. Nat Jobe as Donkey often made the kids laugh and he brought a wonderful joy to the stage.
The huge cast, crew and orchestra all deserve their own praises but I must give a shout out to Manon Gunderson-Briggs who plays both the Gingy and Sugar Plum. The masterful Hatley’s puppetry was an integral part of the success of her performance. It was so delightful to watch the infamous Gingerbread Man as well as have his distinctive voice matched near perfectly.
As set, costume and puppet designer, Hatley work is a marvel of its own. I’ve made some mention of his triumphs already but I can’t praise his work enough.
This is an enjoyable evening for young, old and everyone in between. Shrek the Musical has it all really and just as the closing song by The Monkeys says, I am a believer. I believe in the magic of musical theatre.
SHREK THE MUSICAL
music Jeanine Tesori | book and lyrics David Lindsay-Abaire
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star NSW
Dates: From 1 January 2020
Tickets: From $49.90
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au | 1300 795 267
MELBOURNE Her Majesty’s Theatre | From 16 February 2020
BRISBANE Lyric Theatre, QPAC | From 9 May 2020