Left – Ben Mingay. Cover – Ben Mingay, Nat Jobe, Lucy Durack. Photos – Brian Geach
Shrek the movie (based on the picture book by William Steig, and featuring the voices of Mike Myers as Shrek and Eddie Murphy as Donkey) successfully opened in 2001, and immediately kicked off a new media franchise with sequels and spinoffs that continue to this day. The original Shrek picked up an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002, and following a well-worn path, the team at Dreamworks immediately began working on a musical stage adaptation. But it wasn't until 2008 that Shrek the Musical premiered in Seattle ahead of its Broadway opening later that year.
Shrek the Musical (with music by the prolific Jeanine Tesori and book by David Lindsay-Abaire) has had a solid if not exactly stellar history – it ran for a bit over twelve months on Broadway before a US tour, while a revised version opened on the West End in 2011, running for a little over eighteen months.
The stage version more or less follows the same trajectory as the original movie – Shrek, a hideous ogre, who inadvertently frightens the bejesus out of anyone who comes near him, finds that life is just easier if he keeps to himself, and seems destined to live his days as an outcast. But he finds his solitary world turned upside down when his cosy swamp is… well… swamped… by a cast of fairytale characters, who have been expelled from their homes in the Kingdom of Duloc by the diminutive (and needless to say, evil) Lord Farquaad (say it carefully). The fairytale characters refuse to leave unless Shrek can convince Farquaad to let them return to their homes.
Farquaad as it turns out, wants – nay, needs– a wife in order to become King, but unfortunately the only eligible princess is trapped in a castle surrounded by boiling lava and guarded by a dragon. Farquaad agrees to give Shrek the deed to his swamp, on one condition – that Shrek rescues Princess Fiona and brings her back to Duloc to be married to Farquaad.
Shrek with the help of a wise cracking sidekick Donkey, manages to subdue the dragon and rescue the princess. But when her rescuer finally arrives, Princess Fiona is none too impressed – Shrek isn’t exactly the fairytale hero she was hoping for. But then again Princess Fiona isn’t exactly who she appears to be either.
The storyline of course is pure fairytale with a modern twist, and offers a perfectly reasonable message that fairytales aren’t real and that people are not always who they seem. But it takes a while to get going – the opening scenes with the fairytale characters are a little chaotic and Ben Mingay as Shrek certainly starts low key, although his performance does build throughout the show. The energy on stage changes noticeably with the arrival of Todd McKenney as Lord Farquaad.
Like all good ol’ pantomimes, the show makes use of painted backdrops and moveable set pieces to represent the various locales. The huge dragon puppet (designed by Tim Hatley) is a particular highlight, but the production design (Duncan McLean) is generally excellent throughout.
Performances on the other hand are a bit inconsistent. Both Lucy Durack as Princess Fiona and Todd McKenney as the truncated Lord Farquaad, stand out as consummate pros. For McKenney in particular, known for his dancing prowess, being forced to hobble about the stage on his knees seems a bit of a waste, but he makes a virtue of necessity and injects plenty of humour into his ‘dancing.’ Durack is more than accomplished in playing the sweetheart roles and revels in the opportunity to play the damsel with a twist – the fart scene being a case in point. For my money, she provides the best vocals in the show.
Nat Jobe has perhaps the largest shoes to fill in the role of Donkey, famously played by Eddie Murphy in the film. For better or worse comparisons are unavoidable and unfortunately Jobe struggles to make the role his own. He has a genuinely likeable presence on stage, and manages to capture something of the nervous energy of Donkey, but he’s also somehow too tentative, lacking spontaneity, and doesn’t always pull off the sassy one-liners he’s given.
Ben Mingay as Shrek gives a solid if uninspiring performance. Certainly the ogre prosthetics can’t be easy to work in, restricting his range of facial expressions, and flattening his emotional range. He has a strong vocal presence when given the chance to use it, and as mentioned he starts slow but grows more comfortable in the role as the show progresses.
There’s plenty here for adults and kids to enjoy, although at times it does feel a bit like ‘musical theatre by numbers’. The music is good without any truly memorable tunes, apart from the classic Monkees hit, ‘I’m a believer’ (written by Neil Diamond), which was the break out track from the film, but is hardly an original song (the fart song is a genuinely fun moment in the show, and certainly memorable, but not necessarily for the music).
This is an enjoyable and solid production of an unremarkable musical. The production values are good and the design is excellent, but the show lacks dramatic tension – yes this is a fairytale, but even though we know right from the start how the story will end, we still hope to be taken on an emotional journey. Unfortunately in execution, Shrek the musical lacks the spontaneity and inventiveness that made the film such a smash hit.
SHREK THE MUSICAL
music Jeanine Tesori | book and lyrics David Lindsay-Abaire
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Dates: From 16 February 2020
BRISBANE Lyric Theatre, QPAC | From 9 May 2020