Muny review: 'Shrek' gets off to an ordinary start

For the News-DemocratJune 25, 2013 

The debate will rage on whether "Shrek," with its adult humor, is a kids' show, but families flocked to the crowd-pleasing Dreamworks' animated movie-turned-musical's opening night at the Muny Monday.

As a stage show, the musical is rather uneven, and with Saturday's and Sunday's deluges, this production was no doubt hampered by lack of dress and tech rehearsals. The unfortunate result was a rocky first half, jolted by a much better second act -- just ordinary, overall. Nevertheless, those who stayed for the fun curtain call had a swell time rockin' out to "I'm a Believer" with the lively ensemble.

The colorful sprightly ensemble, mainly fairy-tale characters exiled from Dulac, was a high point, especially the Mr. Bill-like Gingerbread Man's expressive vocals and the nose-expanding Pinocchio (Anthony Christian Daniel in delightful Muny debut). The fun they were having, especially in the standout number "Freak Flag," was obvious.

The musical, mounted on Broadway in 2008, has music by Jeanne Tresori ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") and book and lyrics by acclaimed playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the 2001 Oscar-winning animated movie that was adapted from William Steig's children's book, this charming tale about a curmudgeonly ogre living in a swamp aims for a lesson in acceptance and tolerance for those who are different.

It's an admirable goal, and the Muny's take is certainly ambitious, with first-time director (and terrific puppeteer-turned-comedic actor) John Tartaglia at the helm. The massive dragon with multiple handlers is inspired.

The main letdown was the underwhelming two leads. Separately, they lacked pizzazz and together, they didn't have any chemistry. Their microphone problems didn't help, but Shrek's Scottish accent faded in and out, Stephen Wallem ("Nurse Jackie") wasn't as charismatic or funny or heart-tugging as we're accustomed to from this larger-than-life ogre. His rendition of "Who I'd Be" wasn't the powerful Act I finale it's meant to be. Oh, Wallem had the grumpy part of his character down, but he seemed tentative, didn't own the role at all. He did, however, deliver a touching "When Words Fail" ballad, improving in second act.

As Princess Fiona, Julia Murney's acting was stronger than her vocals, which featured too much vibrato. Her best number was "I Know It's Today," which she shared with two impressive younger girls -- Maria Knasel (young Fiona) and Allison Broadhurst (teen Fiona).

The duo, who fall in love, must belch, burp and fart throughout the number "I Think I Got You Beat." This may be funny to many, but it just seemed wrong at the Muny.

Laughs abound, for sure, with quick-witted dialogue and nimble performers. Stealing the show were two comedic gems -- Michael James Scott as the Donkey and Rob McClure as Lord Farquaad. Scott, a live wire who graduated from Webster and is on Broadway in "The Book of Mormon," clearly connected with the audience from the get-go. His energy boosted this sassy role that's full of verve anyway, and his outstanding ability to sing, dance and act was what the show desperately needed.

Having the demanding role of the diminutive Farquaad, which meant spending most of the time on his knees, seemed effortless for McClure, who excelled at crisp comic timing and physical agility.

The story's fairy-tale quality left patrons smiling after a shower of confetti. Only time will tell whether this musical lives happily ever after.

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