A full musical adaptation of a popular movie about an ogre, a princess and a donkey who go on a road trip? A clever, laughing subversion of fairy tale tropes that still ends with a delightfully happy ending? “Shrek the Musical” has fun written all over it. And if there’s one thing that Derby Dinner Playhouse does well, it’s fun in the form of a musical spectacle.
From the moment the show opens with the song “Big Bright Beautiful World,” the cast is captivating. As Shrek (Bobby Conte) sits on his stump (positioned on a turntable stage, something that seems to be growing in popularity in the theater world) and blithely sings out, “Being liked is grossly overrated,” I find myself thinking how ironically likable Conte is as a performer. It’s not a performance flaw. He plays Shrek as brash, abrasive and crude as he should, but there’s a charm of it that sets the tone to the story: that what we believe of fairy tales could stand to be turned on its head.
It’s also a nice touch, whether intentional or not, how the turntable stage comes into play again during “Who I’d Be,” the final number of Act I. In “Big Bright Beautiful World,” Shrek moves clockwise along the turntable as he sings about shunning the “big bright beautiful world” and finding happiness in his swamp alone. In “Who I’d Be,” he gives in to a little indulgent daydreaming and imagines what his life might be if he were anything other than an ogre. During the climax of this song, he steps onto the turntable again, but this time he moves counterclockwise.
He meets his partner in crime, Donkey (Andrew Coleman) early on, and the two have hilarious but genuinely caring chemistry. Cami Glauser as Princess Fiona is not the dainty princess of fairy tales, though she occasionally pretends to be. She shines best when she surprises Shrek and Donkey with her booming yells or frolics a little too destructively during “Morning Person.”
In perhaps the best number of the show, “I Think I Got You Beat,” she and Shrek compare their miseries. It starts competitively. Fiona details her lonely life in a tower guarded by a dragon for 23 years, almost gloating about everything she suffered and finishing with a mic drop flourish. Shrek retorts with stories about the hatred and disgust he’s met with… and by dabbing when he declares, “I think I got you beat, yeah, I think I got you beat.”
Eventually, of course, the song leads to bonding, and the two instead take turns letting out the loudest burps or farts that they can until Donkey reappears. There are sweeter songs that come later, but to me, “I Think I Got You Beat” seemed like their real love song.
The petulant, scheming, villainous Lord Farquaad is played by Blake Graham, showing off quite a departure from the role of Jack in “Newsies.” Graham gets props just for spending most of the show moving around on his knees (with costumed legs in front, to depict Farquaad’s short stature), but he also secures some of the biggest laughs in the show.
In his song “What’s Up, Duloc?” as he sings about chasing off every fairy tale character so that Duloc would be the kind of “cookie cutter” land where everyone conforms, there’s also something highly pointed about the sparkling red, white and blue of his costume and those of his dancers. Later in “The Ballad of Farquaad,” he explains how his loathing of fairy tale characters came about — something not included in the movie but which adds a little context to an otherwise ridiculous character. It never loses its humor, however, as his tale comes back from quite a different perspective in the finale.
The portrayal of the dragon who guards Fiona is a little tricky, as she has a terrific diva number, “Forever,” that’s difficult to get across from behind a bulky dragon puppet. Instead, Elizabeth Loos — who also plays Mama Bear — appears next to the dragon in a matching pink color and sings the number. Occasionally, the blocking can make it difficult to remember that they’re meant to be the same character, but Loos’ voice and charisma make it a delightful scene.
Almost every song in the show is original, so if you’re a fan of the movie looking for a jukebox musical containing “Hallelujah,” “Bad Reputation,” or “All Star,” you may have to adjust your expectations. However, if you stick around until after the final bows, “Shrek the Musical” does offer an Easter egg for movie lovers. The cast starts a rousing performance of the most popular song from the original “Shrek”soundtrack: “I’m a Believer.”
Overall, “Shrek the Musical” has the key elements of the movie that you love, with lively pop rock numbers that fit in with the spirit of the story and even a few added elements to enrich the story. •