A life-sized storybook unfolded on Tuesday night as "Shrek the Musical" opened in Orange County.
Everyone's favorite ogre appeared on the stage, bigger and greener than ever, but the stunning visual representation masked a lackluster composition.
"Shrek the Musical," which runs through Oct. 16 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, is based on William Steig's children's book and DreamWorks' animated film "Shrek," the first chapter of a four-part series.
The musical tells the story of a swamp-dwelling ogre who goes on a life-changing adventure to reclaim the deed to his land from the evil Lord Farquaad. Joined by a wise-cracking donkey, this unlikely hero fights a fearsome dragon, rescues a feisty princess and learns that real friendship and true love aren't only found in fairy tales.
Liz Shivener's performance as the spunky Fiona carried the show. At times, she outshined Lukas Poost as Shrek, who was lacking in spark until the second act. If anything, the layers of prosthetics and burdensome costuming did little to reveal the inspirational performer behind it.
Moreover, an enthusiastic audience response to Shivener's performance of numbers like "Morning Person" confirmed her dominance of the show. The actress' impeccable comedic timing and showmanship reminded me of Sutton Foster, who originated the role on Broadway.
Other memorable performances included Merritt David Janes, the epitome of Lord Farquaad; Andre Jordan's witty Donkey; and Kelly Teal Goyette's soulful and commanding vocal performance as the Dragon.
Altogether, the combined technical aspects made the production beyond visually stunning. As the curtain rose to reveal the life-sized storybook world, the faces of entranced adults took on child-like expressions of awe.
Puppetry evocative of Disney's "The Lion King" served as an entertainment centerpiece and was the most striking technical feature of the production.
In the song "Forever," a life-sized dragon puppet covered the expanse of the stage as three puppeteers controlled the movements, from tail to eyelashes. Also, Hatley's Lord Farquaad puppet created a convincing illusion of the character's diminutive stature, which required the actor to maneuver on his knees throughout the show.
Tony Award-winning costume designs by Tim Hatley ("Private Lives" and "Spamalot") were shockingly realistic in their representation of the animated characters. And the tour set, inspired by Hatley's original design, unfolded like a pop-up story book brought to life.
However, the biggest flaw in the production rested not on the talent or production execution, but the unsophisticated writing of the libretto and music, the foundation of any enduring musical.
In fact, with the rise of screen-to-stage musicals from companies like Disney, a chronic problem has arisen: In an attempt to gain profits, large production companies recycle successful material, add eye-catching spectacles, slap together half-baked scripts and call it theater.
With show attendance at an all-time low, the artistic integrity of theatrical arts continues to fall prey to these well-financed corporate enterprises, which rely on a recognized name to carry a show. Even occasional theater-goers realize this is not enough.
David Lindsay-Abaire's book closely followed the screenplay, an audience expectation given the movie's popularity. However, even projects with pre-destined templates are expected to employ a certain degree of originality.
As the production progressed, the slap-stick humor and cliché references were no longer effective and it was evident by the audience response that the production promptly lost the attention of older viewers. To compensate, Lindsay-Abaire resorted to obnoxious musical theater parodies from shows including "Dreamgirls," "Chicago" and "Les Miserables," which gave the production an artificial sheen.
Jeanine Tesori, whose compositional credits include Tony-nominated Broadway scores like "Thoroughly Modern Millie," fell short of expectations. The musical compositions lacked a strong melodic character, which caused the 19 original songs to blend together with few memorable moments. Consequently, audiences left the theater humming The Monkeys' hit "I'm A Believer," which, without a doubt, was the evening's musical highlight.
Despite compositional shortcomings more evident to the adults, the production served its purpose for the children. That is to say, the characters portrayed accurate visual representations, the writing held true to the movie, and in the end, kids took home a valuable lesson: be yourself, and that is enough.
"Shrek" is the modern fairy tale, a contemporary commentary on society's perceptions of beauty and the value of friendship. Amid a world of boundless conflict, a simple child's tale awakens tolerance reminding audiences to tear down walls between those unlike ourselves and to look beyond the exterior.
If You Go
What: "Shrek the Musical"
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.