The Pinocchio who will walk onstage next week at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, just a few miles away from Disneyland, isn't for the fainthearted.
Costa Mesa resident Luke Yellin will perform as the wooden puppet in "Shrek the Musical," but his Pinocchio is a far cry from the docile, naïve wooden puppet of cartoon fame.
"Cheated by a fox, swallowed by a whale," yet still believing he is a real boy, Pinocchio lives in denial through much of the show.
The kid-friendly musical version of "Shrek," based on the wildly popular 2001 DreamWorks film and a 1990 book of the same name, tells the story of a flatulent ogre with a good heart, a princess with a mean judo chop, a vertically challenged would-be prince, a wise-cracking donkey and an assortment of evicted fairy-tale creatures.
The musical delves into the back stories of the characters, making it an addition to the "Shrek" series rather than a revamping of the first film.
"It's definitely geared toward kids, but there are some more mature jokes that go right over their heads," Yellin said.
His Pinocchio evokes "Les Miserables" during his big number, "Freak Flag," in which the fairy-tale creatures gain confidence in themselves.
"They learn that everything that makes you different is what makes you strong," Yellin said. "It's really a great message, and it all revolves around Pinocchio. It's a cool little featured part. It's definitely a darker version of Pinocchio than the Disney one … I feel like you just have to be kind of a freak to be in the show. This Pinocchio is sort of a really high falsetto, and I can just kind of do that. Hopefully I don't lose my voice. It seems to be going strongly."
Cast members and the public have debated since the show's debut about whether the actor playing Shrek or the actor playing little Lord Farquaad has it worse; the former wears an excruciatingly warm ogre suit, but the latter is required to perform the entire show on his knees, using an ingenious cape contraption that covers his lower torso.
"Farquaad is holding up," Yellin said. "His knees are doing OK. They're pretty well padded. Our Farquaad is I think the best one there's been, honestly. But our Shrek is here two hours before all of us even get here, and his suit's hot and sweaty, and he has ice that he has to wear for overheating. He's a real trooper. Really talented, and really young, too; he's only 23, so his body can take it, I guess."
All of the leads are relatively young, Yellin said, including himself; he graduated from Costa Mesa High School in 2005.
'An amazing opening'
The current incarnation of the tour began earlier this month in Yakima, Wash., with a completely new cast, Yellin said.
The cast is fairly small, so Yellin also can be seen as a knight in the famous dragon scene, and as a guard for Lord Farquaad.
"Everyone plays like 7 billion roles," Yellin said. "We started rehearsals in August. Then we had about three and half weeks in New York City, and then we went to Yakima and teched the show, doing the special effects and costumes and makeup. This show is crazy. This is the hardest show I've ever had to do."
The show was given three previews in Yakima, which Yellin said "took the jitters out." From there, they began touring the country and are now in Sacramento.
"We had an amazing opening night and an amazing opening night party — the next day was a little bit harder," Yellin laughed. "It's been really magical. Our whole cast is really united, which is different for me because when I was in 'Grease' there was a lot of division. We all get along and we're all here for the same reasons."
Luck and determination
Yellin is already on his second national tour; he recently finished performing in "Grease" around the country. But the theater odds weren't stacked highly in his favor.
While growing up, Yellin wasn't able to take part in an established high school theater program, but he still found himself bit by the bug.
"It was strictly after school," he said. "There weren't any classes for it. But I did almost all the plays, and then I got into community theater in Orange County. I started traveling to L.A. for random auditions, and then 'Grease' came."
Yellin said he's thrilled to come back to his hometown as a part of "Shrek."
"With 'Grease,' the closest I got was Bakersfield," he said. "I saw shows at the performing arts center growing up. I literally live like a block away from it. I'm not even going to be staying at a hotel; I'll be at my house.
"I guess that if I could do it, anyone can do it. I know there haven't been a lot of theater people who have come out of Orange County, but it can be done, really. It just takes determination … and a little bit of luck, I guess."
If You Go
What: "Shrek the Musical"
When: Tuesday to Oct. 16
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
Cost: $20 and up
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