As the school holidays end an ideal family outing comes in the form of Western Arts theatre’s latest production of Shrek a musical adaption of the popular film of the same name. Western Arts’ commitment to providing quality, inclusive theatre is to be commended and this production is a rich example of their dedication, spirit and ambition. Shrek is an obvious choice for a community production; it features a large cast, a recognisable title and many opportunities for the designers to showcase the extent of their skills. For those unfamiliar with the film, Shrek is a modern-day fairy tale that gleefully satirizes the familiar tropes and characters everyone from Pinocchio to the Gingerbread man makes an appearance. It centres around a misanthropic ogre whose solitary swamp is suddenly overrun by fairy tale characters banished by a fanatical despot named Lord Farquaad who seeks to legitimise his claim to the throne by marrying Princess Fiona, who has internalised every princess stereotype in the canon. In exchange for getting his swamp back, Shrek agrees to rescue Fiona on Farquaad’s behalf.
For the most part, the entire cast and creative team have acquitted themselves admirably. Director Meg Warren has considerable experience as a performer and director and based on this evening’s performance, she has proved an exceptional leader in mounting a very challenging piece of theatre with a huge cast of characters under the spectre of an iconic film. The many action sequences are expertly pulled off with ingenius use of projection (Mark Clark), lighting and puppetry (Brenton Van Vliet) and the same attention to detail has been applied to the more intimate scenes. The highlights are the moments that the entire ensemble have the opportunity to perform together, with many taking on multiple roles all of which have clear and distinct characterisations. Rachel Edwards has taken on the dual role of musical director and choreographer, and the cast look and sound fabulous.
With such strong talent on display, I only wish that the show they were performing in were stronger. I would like to iterate that there are many who will enjoy this material and there is much to enjoy: there are some catchy tunes, sharp jokes and a poignant arc about accepting your self-worth and finding the courage to let love and friendship into your life. In my opinion, the text never quite succeeds in developing its identity as a piece of musical theatre. As with any piece of theatre adapted, appropriated or inspired by a piece of existing media one of the largest challenges is justifying why it would be effective when moved from one form to another. Playright David-Lindsay-Abaire tries to have it both ways by adding some gags and backstory that truly do add energy and flow to the story – for example several supporting characters such as Dragon and Farquaad are expanded to hilarious results. But far too often it reverts to having large sections of the film’s screenplay delivered verbatim. What’s most disappointing is Jeanine Tesori’s score which while serviceable doesn’t even come close to the ingenuity she displays in shows such as Violet and Fun Home. The same reverence for the film has extended to the design and some characterisations. Many costumes are recreated beautifully from the film and Broadway production by Heather Wright and other members of the team. I would have liked to have seen a fresh and original approach made to this piece beyond resting on the laurels on what was done so brilliantly in the film.
Despite my reservations about the material, the joys of this production come down to the talent and commitment of the cast. Matt Arter brings sensitivity, gravitas and a remarkable singing voice to the title character. Daniel Ortega (Donkey) has a powerhouse singing voice and great physicality but is encumbered by an Eddie Murphy impression that leaves a lot of his dialogue indistinguishable that I’m sure will improve as the run continues. Amy McMillan is one of the crown jewels of this production; she delivers a deeply nuanced and complex comic performance driven by very real pathos. It is Mark Monroe however that comes very close to walking away with this production (on his knees I might add); his Lord Farquaad is a deliriously evil creation and a triumph of costume design.
Shrek will surely appeal to fans of the film (I am one of them) and those that have enjoyed WAT’s previous productions. The joy and passion that has gone into this production is transparent and will undoubtedly extend to anyone who is fortunate enough to get a ticket.
Shrek the musical plays until October 6th at the Clocktower Theatre.