News Column

'Shrek' flies its freak flag over Forest Park

June 25, 2013

YellowBrix

June 25--"Shrek the Musical" is not the 2013 children's show at the Muny. That's "Mary Poppins" (July 25-August 2). Still, it was easy to feel confused when "Shrek" opened Monday. The outdoor theater -- more comfortable than ever thanks to the new, quiet fans that kept a pleasant breeze coursing throughout the show -- had welcomed many exceptionally young theater-goers.

But there's a twist. While "Shrek" is filled with fairy-tale characters, there's enough spoofing to make adults and older kids smile. And its message of self-acceptance -- saluted in a big, colorful number, "Freak Flag" -- remains worthwhile at any age.

Based on a hit 2001 animated movie inspired by a children's book by William Steig, the musical tells the story of a big green ogre, Shrek (Stephen Wallem), who falls in love with Princess Fiona (Julia Murney) when vain Lord Farquaad (Rob McClure) makes Shrek rescue her from a lonely tower.

Farquaad has exiled a hoard of fairy tale characters to the swamp where Shrek lives alone, but promises to give it back in exchange for a princess bride. Little do they know that Fiona has a secret of her own that will change everything for Farquaad, for Shrek and for her.

John Tartaglia, who played the Genie last summer in "Aladdin," returns as a director with a lively sense of what the big stage can handle. The show is a little slow -- which is a plus for children. Anyway, Tartaglia -- who played Pinocchio in "Shrek" on Broadway -- keeps our eyes so busy that it never drags.

There's a huge red dragon, ably enlivened by a crew of young handlers. (Maybe they got some tips from Tartaglia, a famed puppeteer who got his start on "Sesame Street.") There are hosts of little elves to boost the numbers of fairy tale characters crowding Shrek's swamp.

But when they all get together to sing "Freak Flag," a song that encourages you to be yourself even if you're a wooden boy with a long nose or a wolf in a lady's bathrobe, they score their encouraging point. That song and more are by composer Jeanne Tesori and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the book.

Wallem's big presence makes the schoolboy humor work, and also adds a touching dimension to an ogre who longs for acceptance. His love song "When Words Fail" is one of the show's most traditional musical numbers, and in Wallem's treatment a lovely one.

Murney -- a New York musical star who starred in the Off-Broadway production of "Falling" by St. Louis writer Deanna Jent -- has a ladylike manner that pays off in laughs when she and Wallem team up for a truly weird duet, "I Think I Got You Beat." (The noises of bodily functions so rarely are heard on stage.) There's also a charming trio, "I Know It's Today," that Murney sings with two appealing performers who play Fiona at younger ages, Maria Knasel and Allison Broadhurst.

But the stars of this show are the comics, McClure and Michael James Scott.

Scott plays Shrek's pal Donkey with geniality and sass. It's a delicious surprise when he and his backup singers, the Three Blind Mice (Courtney Arango, Becky Frohlinger and Kaitlyn Louise Smith), sizzle through the soulful "Make a Move." Choreographer Vince Pesce devised a witty dance for the Mice, and Andrea Lauer designed their adorable pink costumes with coordinated colored eyeglasses and canes. They look great on Steve Gilliam's festive set.

And then there's McClure. Farquaad is extremely short, a detail he seeks to hide with trick boots and an inclination to stand on top of things. Equipped with fake legs (the actor spends the show on well-hidden knees) and a pageboy wig, McClure could just -- um, stand? -- there and make you laugh. But he doesn't take it so easy. Waving his arms, issuing commands and, at one point, lolling on a tiny piano, McClure is a one-man comedy band.

Too bad the joke is lost on Farquaad. He doesn't realize there's nothing wrong with being short, or green, or anything, as long as you accept yourself.

"Shrek the Musical"

When--8:15 p.m. through Sunday

Where--The Muny in Forest Park

How much--$12-$80, plus the free seats

More info--314-534-1111; MetroTix.com

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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