A joyful tonic, Shrek the Musical underpins glossy spectacle with endearing heart, delighting the audience with sassy humour and quirky characters.
One of the better film-to-stage adaptations, Shrek the Musical is certainly far more creatively satisfying than the previous occupant of this theatre. Unlike Disney stage musicals, hugely popular 2001 film Shrek was not a musical to begin with, allowing the creators to craft a true piece of music theatre from scratch. The film’s catchy “Welcome to Duloc” is joined by a full score from Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori. Lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire based the musical’s book closely on the memorable film, readily transforming the storytelling to capitalise on the abundance of opportunities for song and dance.
While the expensive 2008 Broadway production of Shrek the Musical ran just a little over a year, the musical was always going to be a strong fit for the West End, with pantomime-loving London audiences well primed to enjoy fairy tale stories. Based on the London staging, the current Australian tour is lavishly appointed and very well cast.
Bucking the trend towards cost-cutting minimalism, the set, costume and puppet design, all by Tim Hatley, are impressively grand, richly coloured and frequently witty. Scene after scene fills the stage with artfully conceived images. The delectably designed costumes contain an extraordinary range of myriad details, combining to spectacular effect. While the puppet for Gingy the gingerbread man is adorable, the mighty Dragon is truly incredible, requiring the mastery of four cast members as puppeteers.
Jason Moore and Rob Ashford’s direction gives the show pep and punch, with plenty of laughs along the way. Balancing the merry humour, the show is not afraid to slow down at times, allowing the audience to engage and bond with the characters.
Music theatre aficionados will particularly enjoy the sneaky easter eggs that pay homage to iconic Broadway shows. Mama Bear seems inspired by Mama Rose. Lord Farquaad begins “What’s Up Duloc?” as Judy Garland at the Palace, segueing to a nod to A Chorus Line before finishing in the style of “Defying Gravity.” Closing her big ballad “Forever,” the Dragon channels Effie White from Dreamgirls.
Josh Prince excels in providing choreography that surpasses expectations, complementing the music theatre references as well as inventing plenty of his own style. A clear is highlight is act two opener “Morning Person,” which sees tap dancing rats go into a fabulous Fosse-like routine.
Musical director Dave Skelton on keyboard leads eleven fellow musicians as they bring the fresh score to life. The show finishes on a special high, rocking the audience as the full company performs “I’m A Believer,” as heard at the movie’s finale.
The production is blessed with a terrific leading man in Ben Mingay, who brings infectious spark to the weary pessimism of poor old Shrek. Mingay’s performance is elevated by the quality of his vocals, his darkly burnished baritone tinged with a hint of rock god styling.
Lucy Durack embraces the opportunity to play delightfully daffy Princess Fiona, scoring plenty of laughs with her comic delivery. The role is more of a belt than a soprano, and Durack proves well equipped for this.
Shrek and Princess Fiona’s love blossoms slowly, arising from friendship and shared traits. Competing for the harshest life story in “I Think I Got You Beat,” the pair begin a fart and burp contest that may be music theatre’s strangest ever mating ritual.
Todd McKenney enjoys his funniest role to date as pint sized Lord Farquaad, practically stealing the show with the character’s crowd-pleasing hilarity. McKenney expertly manipulates Farquaad’s prosthetic legs, frequently making the audience forget the role is being played by an actor on his knees.
Nat Jobe rounds out the lead cast as wise-cracking Donkey, winning hearts as Donkey encourages the romance of his new friends Shrek and Fiona. Jobe is a little short on the manic improvisational vibe that the role needs, and yet finds plenty of moments to shine.
Denise Devlin voices the Dragon with soulful power as befits the character’s mighty stage presence. Fortunately, Devlin has the chance to appear on stage in a dragon-inspired dress for the finale, adding to the fun of “I’m A Believer.”
On opening night, Isobel Lauber performed with plucky poise as Young Fiona, bringing a playful sense of character to her sweet singing.
The ensemble is filled with experienced, highly talented cast members who all play at least one featured role. Caleb Vines is a highlight as sulky puppet Pinocchio. Rubin Matters shows off impressive dance moves as Peter Pan. Manon Gunderson-Briggs nails the high-pitched hysteria of Gingy.
Blue chip family entertainment, Shrek the Musical holds up just as well as a nostalgia-fuelled outing for adults of all ages.
Shrek the Musical plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until 12 April 2020. Shrek the Musical plays at Lyric Theatre, Brisbane from 9 May 2020.
Photos: Brian Geach