FAYETTEVILLE — Once upon a time, a musical came to the Walton Arts Center. More specifically, that time is this week, and the show is Shrek: The Musical.
In its Tuesday (Oct. 30) opening night performance, the show began with Shrek, the burly, green ogre, and Princess Fiona, the lovely red-headed princess, telling the stories of their lives thus far, by stepping out from two giant fairy tale books.
Shrek was sent away by his parents at age 7 to start his own journey. Her parents sent a young Fiona to the solitary of a castle tower to await a rescuing prince. He was told to expect little from the world — after all, he’s an ogre, maligned and feared by most people. She was told to hope for the happy endings of the fairy tales she read and reread.
The crowd showed up ready for this production — lots of families, with many of the youngsters decked out in Halloween costumes. Performances of Shrek: The Musical will continue through Sunday (Nov. 4). Tickets range from $39 to $69 and are available at the Walton Arts Center website.
This musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2009, is based on the story and characters from William Steig’s book Shrek!, as well as the DreamWorks Animation film Shrek, the first chapter of the Shrek movie series. The original Broadway production was directed by Jason Moore, a Fayetteville native whose feature film directorial debut, Pitch Perfect, opened Oct. 5. Moore, with Rob Ashford, is directing this national touring production of Shrek: The Musical.
In Tuesday’s production, so many things were fantastic: the costumes, the music, the vocal performances, the choreography, the sets, the lighting — even the humorous and perfectly delivered lines that sometimes were directed at the adults in the audience.
As Shrek and Princess Fiona tried to figure out their lives, some fairy tale characters — Peter Pan, Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, the Ugly Duckling and others — were banished from the kingdom, and they looked to Shrek for help. Shrek reluctantly made a close friend in Donkey, who was endearing and funny.
The costumes for Shrek, Princess Fiona, Donkey and all of the fairy tale characters were amazing. And there was such attention to detail. The Three Little Pigs each carried a suitcase — each decorated in brick, wood and straw patterns. The Gingerbread Man’s lips and eyebrows moved when he sang. (In 2009, the original Broadway production of Shrek: The Musical received a Tony Award for Best Costume Design, with design by Tim Hatley.)
In one scene, three actresses played Princess Fiona at three different ages. The scene showed her transforming from one age to the next, growing increasingly cynical and impatient as the years passed. All three eventually joined together as they sing “I Know It’s Today.”
In one of the best scenes, Donkey came face to face with the Dragon, while Shrek, played by Perry Sook, rescued Princess Fiona, played by Whitney Winfield. The Dragon was a beautiful, impressive puppet operated by four puppeteers, with vocals provided by Courtney Daniels. She and Donkey, played by Jeremy Gaston, both demonstrated powerful, versatile voices.
Lord Farquaad, played by Christian Marriner, was a strange character, hilarious but obnoxious. Marriner flawlessly presented this short man, performing on his knees with fake legs attached to his thighs. He danced and moved aggressively around the stage, adding to the crazy nature of this character who has serious self-esteem issues.
After Shrek rescued Princess Fiona, they shared stories of their scarred childhoods, but also began to realize they had a lot in common — like a penchant for burping and farting that delighted the youth in the audience.
When Princess Fiona and Shrek started flirting and falling for one another, Donkey channeled some Barry White and James Brown. Gaston delightfully drove this precocious character.
The ultimate problem with this show was the pacing. It was too slow, and the show lasted too long. It started about 10 minutes late, and then had an intermission of 20-plus minutes. In all, the audience was in the theater for two hours and 45 minutes. That’s a lot to ask of youngsters and their parents.
There were many moments that could have been speeded up, without losing anything. And, in at least one point near the end, they showed how they could quickly resolve the story. Sweet, simple, short. That technique should have been used more throughout this production.
That said, it’s a sweet story, told with a great cast and a fantastic live orchestra. And the ultimate moral of the tale: don’t judge a book by its cover, or a person by one perspective. That message came through clearly in one of the best songs, the very catchy, upbeat “Freak Flag.”
The morals of this show are undeniably solid, lovely and enduring. No matter how different you feel, don’t be afraid to be yourself; you bring something special to this world. And, in the end, you write your own tale for your life.