In 2001, DreamWorks released the original Shrek film. To date, the blockbuster Shrek franchise has spawned four films, with a fifth to be released in 2019.
The huge popularity of the Shrek films led to the creation of Shrek The Musical, with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (who was also the book writer for High Fidelity) and music by Jeanine Tesori (who, together with Lisa Kron, wrote the score for the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical, Fun Home). Shrek made its Broadway debut in 2008, running for just over a year. In 2011, an updated production opened on London’s West End.
Shrek: The Musical has now become the 14th musical to be staged by Packemin Productions’ at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres. In fact, the successful Pro/Am theatre company, led by Neil Gooding, is presenting Shrek’s New South Wales premiere.
The musical’s narrative is the story told in the original Shrek film. For those uninitiated, it’s the story of Shrek (Jay Laga’aia), an ogre whose swamp has suddenly been invaded by fairy tale creatures, who’ve been banished from their home in the Kingdom of Duloc by the wicked and short-statured Lord Farquaad (Luke Joslin). Farquaad has removed the creatures on the basis of their being ‘freaks’. To see them restored to their homes (but, primarily, to regain peace and quiet in his own home), Shrek travels to see Farquaad and, on the way, encounters a talking Donkey (Nat Jobe).
When they eventually arrive at Farquaad’s castle, he agrees to give Shrek the deed to his swamp, in return for the ogre bringing him a queen. In pursuit of that purpose, Shrek rescues Fiona (Mikayla Williams), a spirited young princess, from the tower in which she’s spent most of her life. But a rescue by an ogre isn’t what Princess Fiona had in her plans. She’s long dreamed of Prince Charming coming to take her, just as she’s read in her stories. However, Shrek tells Fiona he will take her to her true love, and so Fiona agrees to go with him. On their journey back to Farquaad’s castle, matters become complicated when Shrek finds himself falling in love with the princess.
In its film form, Shrek is wonderful family entertainment and, similarly, Packemin’s presentation of the stage musical is a delightful experience for theatregoers of all ages. Like many of the stronger animated films over time, Shrek is packed with references pitched squarely at an adult audience, but also offers younger viewers plenty of laughs. Shrek is also a story that champions salient lessons for children, including the need not to judge on appearance and to focus on inner qualities; the need to ignore hurtful labels ascribed to one by others because of perceived differences; and the need to be proud of yourself. Directors Jessica Fallico and Craig Stewart have created a production that has heart and conveys those crucial takeaways unfettered. Their work has resulted in a highly entertaining piece that brings the Shrek story to life imbued with meaning.
In the title role, Laga’aia delivers as the cantankerous but maligned ogre, who reveals throughout that there’s much more to him than meets the eye. Laga’aia also has the physical presence necessary to convince in the role.
Jobe is a standout with his affable and endearing portrayal of Donkey, whose loyalty to Shrek is unwavering. His is a hugely engaging performance and Jobe does well in making the character his own. The experience he’s chalked up on the professional stage is obvious. As the initially ferocious Dragon who exposes her softer side as she falls for Donkey, Nikole Music ensures her character is aptly feisty and besotted.
Joslin has already demonstrated his adeptness in comedic roles on the professional stage (including his outstanding performance in last year’s Australian tour of The Play That Goes Wrong). Here, his depiction of the narcissistic, callous but also ridiculous ruler with a Napoleon complex is first class. His Farquaad is a consistent scene stealer, and not just because of the fact that Joslin (a tall man) is required to walk on his knees throughout.
Williams revealed her impressive comedic skills as Glinda in Packemin’s 2016 production of Wicked. As Princess Fiona, she shows great comic timing through both her line delivery and well-placed gestures and facial expressions. At first glance, Fiona is the archetypal fairy tale princess, but reveals her incongruity as time goes on, and Williams’ gives us a believable characterisation of a layered and flawed young woman. Vocally, her sweet soprano means that each of her sung moments is strong.
Backing the principal cast is a sizeable and committed ensemble, whose vocals – coupled with Peter Hayward’s terrific 17-piece orchestra – contribute to full-bodied reproductions of each of Lindsay-Abaire’s and Tesori’s songs. Sophie Gospodarczyk’s choreography is character appropriate, and Peta Anderson’s tap sequence is an excellent display of the dance talent within this ensemble.
Josh McIntosh’s expansive set makes tremendous use of the Riverside Theatre stage and, together with Sean Clarke’s vibrant lighting, beautifully recreates the fictional world. When it comes to scale, Packemin have led the way in recent years in establishing what can be achieved outside of a fully professional setting, and this production of Shrek certainly continues that tradition. Also on the design front, Audrey Currie’s costumes are well conceived, with each of the well-known DreamWorks characters being instantly recognisable.
Packemin Productions’ Shrek The Musical is feelgood family entertainment and well worth a visit to Riverside Theatres over the coming fortnight. For parents looking to introduce children to musical theatre, this production affords the ideal opportunity to do so, and may well be a show you’ll enjoy just as much as they do.
SHREK: THE MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 17 February, 2018
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including interval)
Tickets: $35 – $55
Tickets can be purchased online here