Shrek, the Musical is one of those rare productions that just might please everyone. It’s a musical for people who say they don’t like musicals. Its film- and theater-literacy made it gratifying for Broadway audiences, but it brings plenty of delightful fart jokes into the mix, too, in case all that other stuff isn’t your bag. And best of all, it’s family-friendly without feeling weirdly neutered—the sort of show an adult could attend alone without being given a dirty look.
On top of all of this, Shrek, the Musical is completely fresh. Aside from its Broadway run and subsequent tour, the stage version of the DreamWorks film has hardly been performed anywhere—and that makes Kelrik Productions, which will stage the show later this month at the Spanos Theatre, one the first.
Helmed by Kelrik Artistic Director Erik Austin, Shrek, the Musical opens Friday, July 12, and plays for two weekends—a helluva long run for a local show in a rented venue, especially one the size of the Spanos Theatre. But this show’s special—and not only because, given the local theater company’s recent loss of a venue, it’s the last Kelrik production for what may be a while.
Fittingly, Shrek looks to be especially ambitious; its characters include a 32-foot dragon puppet built locally by Ethereal FX, the operation of which requires no fewer than six puppeteers. (More on that in a moment.) But Shrek is also special because its leads feel right.
The production stars Christian Clarno in the title role, opposite Tabitha Skanes as Princess Fiona and the elastically expressive Redzuan Abdul Rahim as Donkey, a character originally voiced by Eddie Murphy. A trio such as Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey requires a certain level of offstage camaraderie. This, at a recent rehearsal, didn’t seem to be a problem.
“I think part of the trick with our onstage relationship is going from not anything to a genuine friendship,” Clarno said of Shrek and Donkey. “And there’s kind of a friendship based on necessity originally, because I need him to help me find Farquaad and then find Fiona and get her back. But that necessity turns into a genuine brotherly love, which I think is kind of cool.”
The premise of Shrek is simple. The titular ogre finds his swamp overrun by fairytale creatures the evil, obsessive Lord Farquaad (played by Austin) has banished from his kingdom. Annoyed at the intrusion, Shrek sets off for Farquaad’s palace to settle the situation. When he arrives, however, Farquaad is holding a tournament, the “winner” of which will have the privilege of attempting to rescue Princess Fiona from a castle protected by a fire-breathing dragon and bring her to Farquaad to marry. When Shrek wins the tournament, Farquaad promises to remove the fairytale creatures from his beloved swamp if the ogre can successfully rescue the princess.
Clarno, who’s previously starred as Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Brian in Avenue Q, the sultan in Aladdin, and King Triton in The Little Mermaid, is a great physical match for the role. The challenge seems to lie in finding the ogre within, a task Clarno takes seriously.
“I’m trying to get into the mindset of an ogre,” he said, the vestiges of a Scottish-accent-in-progress clinging to his words. “I’m a big guy anyway, but having that extra mass and the fact that people are afraid of you and they don’t even know you—I’m trying to internalize all of that and figure out what that would be like. The ogre in the movie is kind of a cartoon, and even though he’s an ogre, he’s kind of cute. It’s trying to balance that. It’s got to be scary enough that it’s realistic that people would be scared, but also has to be lovable enough that he can actually make some friends along the way.”
Shrek’s mission becomes more complicated when he begins to fall in love with the princess, who, unbeknownst to him, has a curious quirk: until she finds true love, she’s cursed to transform into an ogre after sundown. Skanes seemed to enjoy playing with her character’s duality.
“I’ve been really digging deep into this character,” Skanes said during a break from rehearsal, watching Abdul Rahim wrestle with an errant bit of butt padding on his Donkey costume. “She has what I call P.O.S.—Post-Ogre Syndrome.”
Skanes, who played Kate Monster in Avenue Q, has a rare gift for playing high-voiced girly characters without being grating or falling into cliché. Her Fiona appears at first extremely feminine and nauseatingly romantic, but Skanes gradually lets the ogre come through, barking out lines with a sudden gruffness that catches everyone off guard.
“I’ve been playing around with my script a lot, trying to figure out those ogre-esque moments,” she explained. “I like to do research—would you stop swinging your butt around?”
(Here Abdul Rahim gave up the costume adjustments and sank back into his chair, the posterior padding of the donkey suit sticking out comically as he did so.)
“I like to look at everything,” Skanes continued, “but, for the most part … I was really looking at what she says and how she would say it, trying it different ways, just trying to figure out, especially in the transformation scenes, how she grows into the anger that happens, the roaring and the transforming, and what it might be to become something, how it might feel in her body to change.”
She began acting out Fiona’s transformation as she spoke, wiggling intuitively like a snake shedding its skin: “Her ears would itch, and her skin doesn’t fit quite right.”
While the animated film serves as the template for the lead actors’ performances (Shrek’s Scottish accent, Clarno pointed out, isn’t mandated by the script; it’s a holdover from Mike Myers’ voice work in the movie), Abdul Rahim takes inspiration from the Broadway production as well, citing an interview with Daniel Breaker, who first played Donkey onstage: “He just said, ‘I just looked at Donkey, and thought of him as this big child,’” Abdul Rahim recalled. “Running around, fixated on one thing, jumps back and forth, but really kind of in the moment, and then when he does get hurt, and when things happen to him, it’s right there and it’s very immediate.”
Remember the 32-foot dragon puppet I mentioned?
When I visited Robyn Burns, Jessi Brown, and MJ Johnson at Ethereal FX, Dragon lurked half finished in the warehouse space, her enormous reptilian head resting on blocks of Styrofoam. The puppet, Burns said, weighs around 75 pounds—just a little heavier than the dragon puppet used in the Broadway production. The Broadway puppet, he explained, was designed for professional puppeteers; the added heft of his version allows for greater durability, allowing for a few bumps here and there.
Dragon’s body is easily collapsible, a must for a venue with little wing space; a row of hoops covered in purple “skin” can be quickly expanded or folded down. Brown did the sewing, while Johnson was responsible for sculpting the dragon’s elegant head—which was done freehand, combining the look of a horse’s muzzle and a reptile’s eyes.
(“She sits here with a block of foam and a sharpie and a knife and goes to town,” Burns explained.)
When finished, he said, Dragon will be fully operational—able to flutter her eyelashes at Donkey’s flirtation and open her jaw wide enough to (spoiler alert?) chomp satisfyingly down on Lord Farquaad.
The relative newness of Shrek as a stage production means that many of the costumes, too, must be made by hand. Though much of the production’s wardrobe is courtesy of Costume Capers, several items—such as those for Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona—came from the imagination of costume designer Kathleen Forster.
The show’s choreography, though inspired by the Broadway production, is also fresh. Longtime Kelrik regular Joe Ogren choreographed the majority of the 19 musical numbers on the program. Ogren—home for the summer from New York City, where he’s studying musical theater at Pace University—seemed to be enjoying the comparatively relaxed atmosphere of a Kelrik production.
“This is community theater, and people are doing this for fun, not because they think it’s what they are going to do with their life,” he said. “So the stakes are a little bit lower. It’s different coming from New York, where everything is so serious. Here, it’s really a labor of love. It’s simplified, and it’s clean and it’s crisp.”
Ogren’s work shines in “Welcome to Duloc”—the musical number that introduces Lord Farquaad and his neurotic little town, spoofing several dance styles in the process—and in “Freak Flag,” in which the fairytale creatures embrace their differences and band together. The latter is one of director Austin’s favorite numbers.
“I think it’s poking fun at different styles of music and different shows,” he pointed out. “You can really tell that they’re doing the Les Mis march in it—and waving a giant flag in the back, like Les Mis.”
Given his many tasks at the moment—running the company, directing Shrek, doing a Beauty and the Beast summer camp for kids, and scooting around on his knees as the diminutive Lord Farquaad—Austin was understandably tired.
Following Shrek, however, Kelrik will take a break from staging shows while Austin searches for a new home base for the company. While excited about Shrek, the director doesn’t conceal his exhaustion, either.
“I am so ready for the break,” he sighed.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can belch the headline of this story. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.