So you take a sickly green ogre, throw in his almost best friend – a donkey – add an evil king wannabe and top it off with a damsel in distress, and you’ve got the makings of something kids and adults alike can enjoy.
If you then add some cute songs, good choreography and incredible costumes, what you'd end up with is the First Stage production of "Shrek the Musical," which opened Friday night at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
This is not a story or a play that breaks any new ground. But from what was a gargantuan spectacular on Broadway, director Jeff Frank has found the heart of the story and given it full flight.
Shrek (John Maclay) is an ogre who is trying to reclaim his swamp. He is charged by Lord Farquaad (Matt Daniels) with finding and rescuing Princess Fiona (Elizabeth Telford) and bringing her to him so they may marry and Farquaad can become king.
The show, pared down nicely from the exhausting Broadway version, moves quickly, filled with gags. Some children will get, and others will sail over their heads. The most striking gag is the farting and belching contest waged by Fiona and Shrek. I thought I was past laughing at fart jokes, but apparently not as the contest is rip roaringly funny.
There is nothing particularly special about the message of the play – that you should just be yourself and not worry what others think of you. There are countless books, movies and plays with the same theme. But what sets this musical apart is that Frank found a sense of genuine humanity in this story and in these characters.
His ogre is an ogre, but an ogre with feelings that are easily hurt. Maclay lets his Shrek be an ogre in charge of his own life and the world around him, that is until love strikes. Then he becomes the insecure little boy we all were when we first fell in love.
Telford, who was a dazzling Maria in Skylight’s "Sound of Music" last year, is no less magical in "Shrek."
She has absolute command of the stage and has a kind of comic genius that reminded me of a combination of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. But she’s certainly not just all laughs. She shows us her sorrows and her shames, as well as her delights.
When she sings "Morning Person," about the joys of the new day, chills run through your body as she carries you along on a warm-hearted ride. She is an absolutely amazing actor and singer.
A word must also be written about Daniels, who plays the diminutive Farquaad on his knees with a pair of costume legs dangling down in front of his body.
It is a sight gag that could easily have grown tiresome, but Daniels – one of the best in this city – refuses to let those legs define his character. He brings depth and distinction to the good lord, and deserves every laugh and hand clap he gets.
Brandon Kirkham designs a striking array of costumes. It is no easy task to bring such creativity to so many different costumes, but he succeeds admirably.
First Stage is one of the absolute finest children’s theaters in the country, and they have set a high bar for quality theater. This production matches the best they have to offer. So, if you know some kids who like to laugh, this is a show you should take them to see.
"Shrek the Musical" runs through Nov. 17. Information is available at firststage.org.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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