Out of the closet at full, funky roar7/16/2014
Twenty-somethings these days were raised on the Disney Renaissance. The great run began with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 and may have ended with “Shrek” in 2001. Afterwards, instead of new movies, the kids got spinoffs. “Shrek the Musical” came in 2008, an attempt to duplicate the breakout success of “The Lion King.” That didn’t happen, but the show has become a staple for community theater, thanks in part to everyone’s happy movie memories.
The adapters knew better than to mess with the story, first dreamed up by New Yorker cartoonist William Steig. Shrek is a funky ogre with a love song in his growl, and the princess he saves, Fiona, turns out to sing harmony — she’s a closet ogre. Besides those two, toss in a midget villain with royal aspirations (a comic foil to Peter Dinklage in “Game of Thrones”), a handful of fairy-tale creatures all gone feral, and a donkey at once high camp and huge-voiced: RuPaul meets Little Richard. Don’t stint on the pop flavors, either. The show ends, apropos of nothing, with a full-cast romp through “I’m a Believer.”
Cockamamie as the recipe sounds, at the Playhouse it came off with zest. The best of the 1990s cartoons appealed to adults as well as kids, and opening night, with a crowd about half and half, everyone appeared to have a ball. Laughs ran the gamut from literary allusions (poking fun at Peter Pan) to fart jokes. The big numbers enjoy precision choreography, building and pausing and surging again, all the more impressive since most of the ensemble has to handle multiple parts. Samantha Arneson, for instance, swapped off among a crestfallen Peter, a soulful Dragon, and a tapdancing Rat.
Among the leads, well, Lord Farquadd ruled. He’s the pint-sized bad guy, and Mark Maddy put him across with Disney-worthy sneers and eye-rolls. Angela Lampe’s costume helped, a witty trompe l’œil, but it was Maddy who made this a star turn. The other standout was Ken-Matt Martin as Donkey. Martin uncaged his inner Tina Turner for “Make a Move” (kudos as well to his Ikettes, the Three Blind Mice), and his fur and hooves never kept him from looking fey. Haunches slung forward and forelegs limp-wristed, he let his freak flag fly — to quote the show’s signature number. If “Shrek” has a message, it’s that every ogre deserves to come out of the closet.
Too bad the leads lacked the same panache. Granted, Fiona and Shrek must play relatively straight; their affection must feel plausible. Still, between them little registered beyond Jill Ziegler’s dimpled yearning. As Farquaad approached his inevitable comeuppance, I grew impatient with the lovey-dovey. I wanted to get back to the Donkey and the Dragon, together at full roar.
Overheard in the Lobby: The Playhouse brought back its design wizard, Tim Wisgerhoff, for one last set: a forest wonderland full of surprises. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.