Shrek The Musical (2017) – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center, Phoenix

For many, it may feel as though it was only a few weeks back when director Bobb Cooper began Valley Youth Theatre’s 24th season of shows. It opened with a sparkling production of Shrek The Musical at Herberger Center downtown. But that was four years ago. From the perspective of VYT casting, a whole generation of young performers have moved on. Now, to begin its 28th season, and its 39th staging at the Heberger, Shrek The Musical returns, this time with a new generation of VYT talent, some of whom either saw the previous presentation and could only dream of appearing in a future production, or by those who were simply too young to remember what they were dreaming about as long ago as 2014.

A lot has changed. With new choreography, this time from Nathalie Velasquez, and an overall fresh approach to something that has now become a local perennial favorite, the opening night performance of Shrek The Musical was delivered with an unflagging energy that ultimately proved irresistible. Performed by a new, attractive ensemble of talent, some of whom may well join the ranks of previous VYT alumni who went on to make theatre a career, the show’s intention was always to be nothing more than brash, candy-coated entertainment, and that’s exactly what you’ll see.

Based on the 2001 animated feature, much of the comical pokes of Disney, and Disneyland in particular, are mostly gone, replaced by comical nods to other Broadway musicals such as Wicked, Dreamgirls, and Once Upon A Mattress. There’s even a reference to Babe – “That’ll do, Donkey, that’ll do” – and Judy Blume’s book Are You There God, It’s me, Margaret, when Princess Fiona sings, ‘Are you there, God, it’s me Fiona?” Presumably, much will go over the heads of the young, including many in the cast, but the older set should delight in the recognition. However, Disney doesn’t fully escape the ribbing. The opening song, Big Bright Beautiful World where a young Shrek sets out on his journey, remains a cheeky dig at Disney’s Carousel of Progress theme, A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, though without Broadways’ revolving stage reflecting the movement of the theme park’s famous exhibit, the joke is no longer quite so apparent.

As is often the case with a VYT season opener at Herberger Center, production values are high, a continual reminder that what you’re witnessing is as removed from a high-school performance as any other professional production in the valley, despite the youth of the talent. Those familiar with the original Broadway show may notice how sets and certain scenes are understandably streamlined – there’s no huge talking Magic Mirror, and those nursery rhyme glimpses of a cow jumping over the moon, a dish running away with a spoon, plus the brief appearance of Lion King characters are all absent – but with atmospheric lighting, clever scenic designs, plus steam shooting up from near the orchestra pit representing a river of boiling lava below, the visual effects of a fairy tale world remain hugely effective.

Particularly eye-catching is the oversized dragon, operated by several young puppeteers. On mere appearance, it’s entrance is a genuine crowd-pleaser, and even though the movement of the puppet’s head and its mouth appear somewhat stiffer than its impressive arrival suggested it might be, the essence of the character’s colorful presence is made all the better by the powerful vocals of Emily Bowlby, giving voice to the dragon’s song, Forever (regionally replacing the character’s more elaborate Broadway number, Donkey Pot Pie).

The large cast of fairy tale creatures and the colorful citizens of Duloc, with their colorful costumes and their sharp, tightly performed song and dance numbers, give excellent support to the overall production. What’s Up, Duloc and Freak Flag are both outstanding. Yet as with VYT’s earlier production, director Cooper has once again cast four great, new talents as principle leads. Steven Enriquez, who was last seen with VYT as the Lion in The Wizard of Oz, is here even more impressive as Shrek. He may be hidden under layers of green makeup with a bald head, a fake, fat nose and bulbous belly stuffing, but his personality shines. When Shrek mistakenly believes he’s unloved by the princess, Enriquez’s convincing sense of rejection can’t help but make you feel genuinely sorry for him.

As the motor-mouthed Donkey, there’s always a tendency for performers to imitate Eddie Murphy’s undeniably powerful attack voice delivery from the 2001 film, but like all good theatrical interpretations, Brach Drew avoids imitation and makes the character his own. “I’m like a GPS with fur,” he declares.

Whoever plays the slight of stature Lord Faquaad automatically benefits from the hilarious sight of short, artificial legs while scampering around the stage on his knees. However, rather than relying solely with the gag of the visual (as some past performers are guilty of doing) with comical facial expressions and a keen sense of cartoonish malevolence, Jared Barbee’s individual interpretation is laugh-out-loud funny. He’s the brat who grows older but never up, both figuratively and literally.

But the center of attention by sheer energy alone is Addison Bowman as Princess Fiona. There’s an added moment during the show’s introductory song that was never in the Broadway show. It’s where Fiona suddenly interrupts the proceedings and indicates to the theatre tech crew up in the booth to cut the lighting on the sign hanging center stage that reads: Shrek. She’s letting us know that this is really the story of Princess Fiona, and she’s right. With this production, it is. With comical timing, an added level of muscular power behind her movements, a large dose of sass, and a great voice to boot, Addison steals the show. Her song, I Know It’s Today, sung from the balcony of the tower where she’s imprisoned with a young Fiona (Olivia Fearey) and a teen Fiona (Abby Cardenas) is a production highlight.

Shrek The Musical plays at Herberger Center Center Stage until August 27.

Picture Courtesy of Cliff Cesar

A Brief Footnote:

At the risk of sounding like an old theatrical curmudgeon, not to mention upsetting a few parents, allow an editorial indulgence.  While the discipline of the young cast is undisputed, the same can’t always be said for certain sections of the opening night audience. While enthusiastic applause, cheers, and overall support is always encouraged, just because you know someone on stage, high-pitched whooping, hollering, scream level woo-whooing, and the desire to make Broadway songs a participatory clap-along at every opportunity are not. Neither is taking private phone calls and talking as though the house is some kind of private phone booth. Please, these talented young performers are being given a rare opportunity of performing on a professional stage, for some it might be their only time; the response from the audience should be equally professional. Keep in mind, they’re actors performing at Herberger Center, not cheerleaders at a high-school pep rally.

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