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Shrek: The Musical – Theatre Review – Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

Valley Youth Theatre brings its 24th season of family entertainment and its 30th on stage at the Herberger Center downtown to a close with its huge production of the Broadway musical Shrek, and in line with its celebration of performing for valley audiences for almost a quarter of a century it has truly pulled out all the stops.

Shrek: The Musical is based on the first of the Shrek big screen features and it’s a winner for so many reasons.  The Broadway show was like candy floss; it looked good, it was fun but it was gone seconds after consuming it.  Here, with a cast of pre-teens and teens, the formula with its candy coated colors, its witty book by David Lindsay-Abaire, and the up-beat and often funny songs by Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, is just right.  If anyone is going to give the production the kind of justice a cheeky version of the fairy tale requires it’s a cast like this.  You can just imagine the pep-talk director Bobb Cooper gave his cast prior to the first rehearsal:  “We’re about to hit a milestone.  Let’s invite the valley to a party they’ll never forget.” And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Brad Cashman makes an excellent Shrek.  First, he not only has the build but more importantly he also has the talent for making this comic book character come alive.  He can be threatening when needed – his imposing size alone takes care of that – but he can also show a tender, almost forgiving side when required without it seeming as if he’s pretending.  Plus, he works the accent well.  The character was never meant to be Scottish, that’s something comedian Mike Myers invented for the film simply because it was a funny accent he was good at doing.  Cashman’s accent may not fool anyone fromGlasgow, but he maintains a sound that’s easy for local audiences to understand while keeping up with the spirit that the character is not from around here.

Lacey Bookspan is Princess Fiona, and she’s a genuine triple threat.  Valley Youth Theatre has a history of discovering great female talent with the potential for developing into something more than simply play acting in community theatre.  Here, Bookspan shows she can sing, dance and act extremely well, but she’s also a comedienne with a natural talent for performing funny, and it’s this side of her performance that shines above all else.  I’m truly looking forward to seeing her in more productions.

John Batchan has a ball as the motor-mouthed Donkey.  He’s funny and he uses the sometimes cumbersome donkey costume to great comic effect.  Eddie Murphy may have developed Donkey’s spitfire method of non-stop talking, but Batchan doesn’t need to echo Murphy’s distinctive style in order to make the character work; the young freshman has a style all of his own.

But the guy who steals the show with every moment he’s on is Philip Amerine as the diminutive Lord Farquaad.  First, it’s a funny role – the visual of his tiny legs on a regular sized head and body is alone worth the price of admission – but it’s what Amerine does with the character that makes him – excuse the pun – stand so tall.  The way he uses his face, his voice and the movement of his head captures exactly what makes Farquaad such a funny role.  Take my word, Amerine delivers a professional performance.

The production is fast moving, upbeat, and consistently funny.  Despite the youthful age of its performers, Bobb Cooper is wise not to tone down some of the humor purposely designed to keep some of the adults happy.  It’s what makes the show work so well.  When the Gingerbread Man tells the evil Farquaad to “Eat me!” while being tortured, the remark is laugh-out-loud funny.  So is Shrek’s observation when seeing the size of Farquaad’s tall tower for the first time in the distance.  “You think he’s compensating for something?” Shrek asks.  When reading through the list of Princess Fiona’s likes and dislikes, Shrek reads aloud, “She enjoys pina colada and getting caught in the rain.”  Most of this may go over the heads of the younger crowd, but that hardly matters.  It’s those moments that make Shrek the borderline naughty comedy that it is.  Without it, the show would be flat.

Scene changes are smooth and professional, the choreography from Molly Lajoie is both lively and energetic, and the live music from the band under Mark Fearey’s direction is outstanding.  The joke of the exploding blue bird at the beginning of the second act is lost somewhat – it merely looks as though the bird has suddenly taken flight – and the action of the climax once the dragon claims Farquaad is muted; it’s actually difficult to know what’s happening, but the overall spirit of the show never allows the odd production misstep to spoil the fun.

For the first time for a long time at the theatre, as a reviewer, I wanted to put the notebook aside and simply enjoy the evening, which is exactly what I’ll be doing on a second visit to this first class production.

 For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE to go to the VYT website.


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