Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Shrek's Spectacle Delivers Smiles

by Rachel Korach Howell
photos by Shannon Struttmann

Nathan Nelson as Shrek;
Lovar Davis Kidd as Donkey
Cedar Rapids - Shrek the Musical, based on the beloved animated movies, maintains the moral lessons through a lens of infectious humor, well-crafted music, and all around fun.

As I was watching the musical, one thing that became clear to me was the difficulty in putting a new spin on something so cemented in the media - unless the new artist is willing to forego the recognizable qualities that are the purpose for the show’s creation. If one were to make new choices, it wouldn’t be the same story, with the same characters, and the audience would not be getting what they expect and desire to see when purchasing tickets for a show based on their favorite animated film. Imagine if Shrek had a French accent, if Lord Farquaad was on stilts instead of his knees, if Fiona was a brunette. Absolutely shocking and all wrong!

This is most difficult with the character of Shrek. The audience expects Mike Myers and anything short of him is automatically compared to that highest standard. So, what I looked for was if that guy was having fun. The good news? He was. Nathan Nelson (Shrek) had sporadic moments of jerky gesturing, and his voice wasn’t a powerhouse, but his presentation was more than adequate and the character the audience knows and loves was evident in his portrayal. His delivery was honest and you could tell Nelson had a lot of love for his character. However, my favorite song, “Who I’d Be,” which closes the first act, fell a bit flat for me. I love the poetry of it, the honesty within it, the simple dream of acceptance… but the song was rushed and Shrek seemed uncomfortable at times, unable to reach the power I crave in those moments when the character is so vulnerable, self-consciousness, and the rest of the world, just goes away.

Fiona & Donkey are held next to the movie as well, but there’s more wiggle room for these characters, in my opinion. Donkey’s physicality changes from actual talking donkey to talking human in a donkey suit for the stage, and is able to do a lot more physical expression, which Lovar Davis Kidd (Donkey) took full advantage of. He sprung from one end of the stage to the other, in a head to toe fur costume (which had to have been incredibly stifling at times), and managed some solid vocal work at the same time. Kidd's energy was simply unending and a marvel to experience: he tapped, he jazzed, he even twerked. I wanted to give him a high-five/hoof after he finaled a song into the splits.

Greg Smith as Lord Farquaad;
Nikki Stewart as Gingie
Fiona, portrayed by Emily Reiter, also did some impressive cardio and then sang as if t’weren’t no thang. Reiter had the strongest vocals of all the leads and brimmed with glee during the whole show. There is a sweet sadness to “I Know It’s Today” and each of the capable young ladies did justice to it - but, at the very end, when Fiona lets us know that she has lived in solitude for 23+ years, and then switches to that necessary hope people cling to in order to endure life’s ongoing tortures, the audience straddled heart-break for a moment. Fiona is the best princess to portray because she’s a visual feast who’s not afraid of a bro-type chest-bump, ripping the most impressive flatulence (the “fart/woo” scene was great fun to watch), and standing up for herself at every turn. Reiter didn’t let go any opportunity to enjoy Fiona, and the audience caught that joy like a virus.

The most standout leading role performance for this reviewer was that of Greg Smith. I’d seen the original Broadway production on Netflix before and always had to fight the instinct to fast forward through Lord Farquaad’s songs because I just didn’t feel the connection to the character. But, in this live version, these moments became some of my absolute favorites. Smith had impeccable comic timing and didn’t over-ham anything. There is often a desire to milk moments in over-the-top comedies, but Smith kept it reigned in. The villain was an honest and complete character and earned every one of my out-loud laughs. He was also another example of incredible breath support. The audience watched him run around the stage on his knees 99% of the time, singing with clarity and gusto.

The ensemble, in many ways, stole the show. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a tight group. They worked together with ease and joy, maintaining 100% commitment to the work and to each other. Their dances, all wonderfully choreographed by Donkey (Kidd), were energized and practiced and I had to fight urges to leap from my seat to join in their fun and teamwork. The ensemble learned a slew of incredibly different dances from the sweetly robotic Stepford dolls in Dulac to the simple, dynamic, and fun tappin’ rats. The ensemble roles in this show are incredibly juicy and every person had a moment to shine, not to mention a slew of shockingly incredible costumes!

The denizens of Dulac

The production concept itself strayed little from the version I’d previously experienced. Yet, as I said earlier, the production team is also trapped by that original musical and animated film. There are so many little details within the story, and the gimmicks used in past productions are still very funny. So, if it’s not broken, should it be “fixed?” Tampered with? Either way is playing with fire and I don’t fault director Casey Prince for choosing to stick to the predetermined spine of the show, rather than trying something different with it. If someone had seen the stage show before, there weren’t a lot of surprises. There were some lovely little details here and there that made certain moments taste more unique, but the blue print of the show had been previously documented and was utilized here. There was decent staging throughout the production, only lagging in energy a handful of times. It appeared as though Donkey and Shrek had little motivation when “fighting” the dragon; lackluster running and a poke at the puppet once or twice. There was a Christmas themed moment at the end of the show, which I personally didn’t care for. To me, the show is enough on its own and didn’t need a holiday nod.

The visuals were extremely impressive, no matter how you slice it. The costumes, by Joni Sackett, were incredible. The Fairy Tale creatures looked so spectacular, and the sameness of the men and women of Dulac was creepy and adorable at the same time. Even the three dresses of Fiona as she aged were each wonderfully tailored not only to each actress, but to the age the actress was portraying, each dress changing just a bit to show her ongoing maturity. Joe Link’s puppet creations were impressive. The dragon flew across the stage, the same beautiful short pink wings, and a mouth Tracie Hodina manually operated with every soulful word she sang. The scenic design by Scott Ollinger was accurate, malleable, fun, and useful. Of the shows I’ve seen at TCR, none had a visual production value that held a candle to the spectacle of this show.

It is very hard to not love this show. Not only is it based on one of the smartest animated movies in existence, the writing is intelligent and perfect for all ages to enjoy, and the overall product is fun from start to finish. There’s a lot of gloom around this time of year, but this show is sure to put a smile on your face.

Shrek the Musical runs through December 20 on Theatre Cedar Rapids' mainstage. Tickets and more info available here.

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