By Donald V. Calamia, EncoreMichigan.com
When smart theater executives plan their seasons, they do so knowing full well not every show will be a sell-out – and so they plan their budgets accordingly. If a show meets or surpasses its budget and makes money, that’s cause for celebration. If it doesn’t, it’s probably time for prayer, hoping the next will sell like crazy to make up for it.
I suspect that’s true at Detroit’s best-known venue for Broadway tours, the Fisher Theatre. While some shows pack customers to the rafters – “Jersey Boys” comes to mind – a handful of others (mostly dramas, I’d guess) seem to draw only a hardy few. One genre that seems to go either way, however, is the family-friendly musical – often based on a movie cartoon or a popular children’s book. One such show is currently in town, and if the excellent opening night performance of “Shrek The Musical” is any indication, there should be plenty of green to go around – both on stage and in the Fisher’s bank account! Luckily for fans, the show continues through March 11.
Based on a book and characters created by William Steig and the first “Shrek” movie by DreamWorks Animation, “Shrek The Musical” tells the story of two 7-year-olds, an ogre and a princess, whose parents send them out into the cold, cruel world – the ogre to fend for himself, and the princess to fulfill her destiny locked in a tower.
Little did either know their paths were fated to cross 8,423 days later when Shrek (the ogre) is tasked by the diminutive Lord Farquaad to go to the tower and fetch his prospective bride. (His reward? The deed to the swamp he calls home, which is overrun by storybook characters Farquaad exiled from his territory.)
But things don’t go smoothly for the grumpy ogre, who finds himself accompanied on his journey by a smart-mouthed donkey. Plus, the princess he encounters turns out to be far more than just the object of a business deal he struck with a conniving politician. (Is there any other kind?)
The NETworks production now at the Fisher is a slick and thoroughly entertaining production that accomplished the near impossible on opening night: It held the attention of the very young seated all around me from start to finish. That’s a feat any thespian with experience in theater for young audiences will tell you can be quite difficult to achieve – especially for more than two hours (plus intermission).
And why that happened is easy to explain.
Lukas Poost as Shrek and Liz Shivener as Princess Fiona fully capture the characters audiences have grown to love in the movies, yet each adds a certain flair to their portrayal. Andre Jordan is delightful as Donkey without mimicking Eddie Murphy, while Merritt David Janes is the perfect cartoon villain you love to hate. (My knees ached for him throughout the show, however; see the show to find out why.)
But of equal importance are the many other colorful characters who bring the story to life – aided and abetted by the superb storybook costumes by Tim Hatley. While all costumes are impressive, Luke Yellin’s Pinocchio – who is sheer fun to watch, by the way – is by far one of the most unique, yet functional designs I’ve seen in ages. So too is the dazzling outfit worn by Susan Leilani Gearou as the Witch. (I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.) Even the cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf played by Michigan native Adam Steiner is memorably attired.
Also memorably garbed is the stage, with a set designed by Hatley and adapted by James Kronzer. While animated films have the luxury of going any place and any time without blowing up the budget, the entire design team for “Shrek The Musical” (including lights by Paul Miller, sound by Shannon Slaton, make-up by Naomi Donne and puppets by Hatley) has matched the films by creating a gorgeous and amazingly functional fairy tale world in three dimensions.
Granted, I’m not the intended market for “Shrek The Musical.” But my visit to the fantasy world of ogres and princesses couldn’t have been more enjoyable – and I imagine it’s even more so if you have a child with you. So find a youngster or two and introduce them to the magic and wonderment of live theater. I can think of no better show with which to begin a life-long love affair with the performing arts!
For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.com.
Donald V. Calamia is the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. He is also the theater editor of Between The Lines, for which he created The Wilde Awards, a “must attend” annual event at Detroit’s Gem Theatre that honors the work produced by the state’s professional theaters. Calamia is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Theatre Critics Association.