Theatre Intime, Princeton University Players Present “Shrek The Musical”; The Reclusive Ogre and His Friends Entertain a Reunions Weekend Audience
“SHREK THE MUSICAL”: Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have presented “Shrek The Musical.” Directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla, it played May 20-22 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left, Princess Fiona (Ann Webb) is rescued by unlikely friends Shrek (Rafael Collado) and Donkey (Tobi Fadugba). (Photo by Emily Yang)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have collaborated to present Shrek The Musical. The show entertained an enthusiastic mixed-age audience, which filled the Hamilton Murray Theater on opening night.
The 2008 Broadway musical’s often witty book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapts the screenplays of the popular DreamWorks film series, which is based on William Steig’s 1990 picture book. The music — which incorporates elements of pop, R&B, and traditional musical theater — is by Jeanine Tesori. The show interpolates “I’m a Believer,” which is written by Neil Diamond.
This production is smoothly directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla. They let the audience be a part of the action, by reserving a row of seats through which the cast often moves.
The crisp musical direction is by Giao Vu Dinh, assisted by Sam Melton and Chloe Webster. The band opens the show with a brief “Overture,” consisting of a series of triumphal chords followed by a bouncy march.
“The wry “Big, Bright, Beautiful World” shows the childhood experiences of Shrek (played by Rafael Collado) and Fiona (Ann Webb). At age 7, Shrek is sent to live on his own having been warned by his parents (played by Aria Buchanan and Matt Gancayco) that he will be shunned for his looks. Eventually he finds a swamp, where he is content to live alone.
Fiona blithely re-titles the show Fiona The Musical, and tells her story. As a child she is shut in a tower by her parents, King Harold (Andrew Duke) and Queen Lillian (Jacquelynn Lin), to await Prince Charming.
The reclusive Shrek and the exuberant Fiona are opposite personalities. Accordingly, set designer Ricky Feig places the ogre’s hut and the princess’s tower at opposite ends of the stage.
Shrek’s solitude is disrupted by the arrival of a crowd of misfit fairytale characters. They include the nervous but feisty gingerbread man “Gingy” (Lydia Gompper), a (not so) Wicked Witch (Layla Williams), Peter Pan (Mel Hornyak), and a cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf (Duke).
Also among these creatures — along with assorted bears, mice, and pigs — is Pinocchio (Alison Silldorff). Lauren Owens brings abundant energy to a dual role of a dwarf and the Captain of the Guard.
The lengthening of Pinocchio’s nose is skillfully executed, and it is fun to watch it happen.
The fairytale characters inform Shrek that they have been banished for being “freaks,” by the villainous Lord Farquaad. Shrek decides to visit Lord Farquaad — who has threatened the creatures with death if they return — at his castle in Duloc, and try to persuade him to let them return home.
On the way, Shrek (who mentions Nassau Hall during his journey) rescues a chatty Donkey from Lord Farquaad’s guards. Donkey (Tobi Fadugba) suggests that, in return, he show Shrek the way to Duloc; Shrek grumbles but reluctantly agrees.
As Shrek, Collado skillfully imitates the Scottish accent associated with the character, as well as conveying both his bitter reclusiveness and his fundamentally kind nature. Fadugba is the needed contrast to this, infusing Donkey with all of the jovial sincerity and slightly nervous energy that the character requires. Both actors make their characters’ first meeting particularly entertaining.
In the eerily cheerful “What’s Up, Duloc?” Lord Farquaad’s subjects proudly sing about the fascist changes he has brought to their “perfect place.” The diminutive Lord Farquaad (a delightfully snarky TJ Rickey, who also is one of the strongest singers) is not yet a king, but can become one if he marries. He selects Fiona as his bride. The sequence has some slick choreography by Abraham (who shares the task of choreographing the show with Jenni Lawson and Ines Aitsahalia).
As we see Fiona grow from a little girl to an adult, three actors portray her: Sydney Hwang (Young Fiona), Silldorff (Teen Fiona), and Ann Webb (grown). The trio sings the wryly sweet “I Know It’s Today”; they are linked by their reaction to a book of fairy tales, which fuels Fiona’s increasingly frustrated hope that a rescue, by a dashing man, is imminent.
Lord Farquaad agrees to give Shrek the deed to his swamp, if the latter will rescue Fiona. When they arrive at Fiona’s tower, Shrek goes to rescue the princess, while Donkey manages to charm the guardian of the tower: a lonely female Dragon (Carrington Symone Johnson, who stands out with her rendition of the rhythmic belter “Forever,” backed by a chorus of knights).
The production design is generally faithful to the style and color scheme of the film and Broadway production, while adding some original elements. Elliot Lee’s playful costumes are an example of this; the central characters — Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, and Lord Fargquaad — resemble their counterparts from previous iterations.
The Dragon is a notable exception. In many previous productions she has been large and taken multiple puppeteers to operate. Here she is a handheld puppet, about the size of Gingy, operated by the actor who plays her (Johnson), whom Lee outfits with a glittery low-cut dress.
Collado infuses Shrek’s signature “Who I’d Be” with plenty of introspective dreaminess, though this writer found his rendition of the second act’s “When Words Fail” musically superior. Collado and Webb play off of each other well in “I Think I Got You Beat” (an imitation of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” albeit with more juvenile humor). Along with Rickey, Webb brings some of the strongest vocal performances, including the breezy act two opener “Morning Person.” The ensemble of fairy tale characters is memorable in the rousing “Freak Flag.”
The pit band includes AJ Comsti (drums); Devon Ulrich (trumpet); Jay White (electric bass); Minjae Kim (guitar); Sydney Mullin (flute); Kyle Ikuma (keyboard), and Meryl Liu (keyboard). In addition to accompanying the cast, the band provides some welcome entertainment for the audience before the performance starts, adding to a celebratory mood.
Balance among the musicians is quite good. However, for future productions of musicals, it would be advisable to pay extra attention to the balance between the band and the singers, which at times is skewed in favor of the former. Some vocalists are able to project strongly enough that this is not an issue; with others, this is somewhat less true.
Sound designer Nicabec Casido makes Shrek’s roars suitably fearsome — so it is amusing when the ogre quietly utters the (unamplified) word “roar,” and characters still recoil. Angelica Qin’s lighting is particularly striking in a scene in which the Dragon destroys Lord Farquaad.
While Shrek the Musical marks a bit of a departure from Theatre Intime’s usual style, the show does cover, however comically, issues the group explores. “I Know It’s Today” satirizes the extent to which gender stereotypes and expectations are perpetuated by children’s literature. A rather pointed bit of social commentary comes in a sequence in which the citizens of Duloc physically lower themselves to match Lord Farquaad’s height.
Ultimately, though, Shrek the Musical is a joyful Reunions Weekend treat, presented by actors and musicians who clearly enjoy performing the show.
For information about Theatre Intime’s upcoming productions call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org. For information about Princeton University Players, visit pup.princeton.edu.