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The Barter Blog

Shrek The Musical — Special is the New Strong

May 21, 2019

Review by Bonny Gable
May 21, 2019

When it comes to frogs or ogres, it’s not easy being green. This phenomenon is explored to enlightening effect in Barter Theatre’s production of Shrek The Musical. Adapted from the much-loved DreamWorks animated film, David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics with Jeanine Tesori’s music bring this touching and funny story to the stage for an exciting theatrical experience. A departure from the sweet storybook fairy tale, this fable of epic proportions based on the book by William Steig has become a cherished story of outcasts doomed to loneliness because of something quirky in their natures. The ogre Shrek and his beloved Fiona endure life’s slings and arrows to discover that what began as a curse turns out to be life’s fortune. Bursting with energy and color, fantastic creatures and puppets, plus a myriad of special effects, this inspirational tale of courage and triumph is executed in an unforgettable style.

Banished at the age of seven to a dreary swamp, an adult Shrek suddenly finds his solo existence shattered by a throng of unusual creatures. These “fractured” fairytale characters, all possessing a little something quirky as well, are exiled from the Kingdom of Duloc by the pretentious Lord Farquaad because they are not perfect. To restore order Shrek travels to Duloc, rescuing a talkative Donkey along the way. Confronted by Shrek, Farquaad — short in stature but giant in ego and ambition – explains that he must marry a princess to become king. He issues a challenge to Shrek: fetch Princess Fiona from the tower where she has been confined since childhood in exchange for the deed to his swamp. Shrek and Donkey embark on a quest to conquer a sea of hot lava and a ferocious dragon to gain their quarry, unaware of the ways true love will intercede with their plan.

Of all productions that count as absolutely “perfectly” cast, this is certainly one of them. Zacchaeus Kimbrell portrays an indelible Shrek with a spot-on Scottish accent, giving him a sympathetic personality and revealing his inner world through a gorgeous, glorious voice. Kim Morgan Dean as the ever-hopeful Fiona brings a gregarious determined energy to the role. Both charming and fierce, but always endearing, her voice soars to unforeseen heights. Joining this fabulous duo is Donkey, hysterically played by Sean Maximo Campos. His charm is irresistible as his antics, impromptu bursts of song, puns, and jokes come flying at a mile a minute. Though certainly an upbeat companion for Shrek, Donkey is also a surprisingly sensitive ally who counsels him and keeps him grounded. Samuel Floyd is impeccable as the pompous but foolish would-be king Lord Farquaad. He imbues this diminutive tyrant with a flamboyant personality befitting his ego, enhancing the humor with an amazingly powerful voice that springs from the royally clad homunculus.

But this story would be impossible to tell without the fairytale personae, castle guards, Duloc dancers, puppeteers and such that help weave it together. A steady flow of storytellers is maintained by a marvelous ensemble of actors who perform heroic feats of character transformation as if by the wave of the Fairy Godmother’s wand. The stage is almost constantly ablaze with astonishing creatures, not the least of which are the fantastic puppets designed by Megan Pressley. Her giant fuchsia dragon with moveable jaw, blinking eyes and fiery breath engulfs the stage with a ferocious, but at times loving, personality. The collaborative effort required to pull this off proves it takes a village.

The sets and costumes play starring roles in their own right. Derek Smith’s whimsical, and very green, enchanted forest and dazzling ostentatious castle transform the stage into a storybook fantasyland. Within it Kelly Jenkins’ wildly creative inventions adorn the characters with spectacular costumes in every color and texture imaginable. Her clever design that converts a six-foot actor into the snack-sized Farquaad inspires laughter before he even utters a word. Whitney Kaibel’s fanciful wig and makeup designs add the perfect finishing touch.
This play is overflowing with clever dialogue and lyrics, contemporary references, and even local jokes. The humor aimed at adults but harmless to children is balanced with loads of physical antics to make it a solid entertainment for everyone. Director Katy Brown has worked her wizardry to mine the story for all its magic, complemented by a superb team of collaborators. Music Director Lee Harris brings this complex musical score to life, infusing it with supersonic vitality. Delightfully energetic dances by choreographer Ashley Campos are a pure joy, as are the tap numbers created by Andrew Hampton Livingston. (I won’t give it away, but be on the lookout for surprise tapping “mice.”)

The best lessons are learned when absorbing entertainment lets them sneak up on us. Shrek The Musical is full of such surprises just waiting to snatch us unaware and send us away feeling better about that little something quirky in our own nature. We just might want to wave the Freak Flag and sing, “What makes us special, makes us strong.”

Bonny Gable is a former theatre professor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia.