Once upon a time there was a big, scary, green ogre, a beautiful princess with a deep, dark secret and a very friendly, wisecracking donkey. As luck would have it, they're in Chicago for the next eight weeks, and are we ever lucky to have them! This isn't exactly a carbon copy of the overproduced, star-studded mega musical that played Broadway in 2008, but in many ways it might even be better.
The musical now has a new beginning, a slightly different ending (the Monkees song, "I'm a Believer," heard at the end of the film, is now a part of a megamix finale featuring the entire cast), several new set pieces and special effects (Fiona's transformation is quite stunning), a few song changes (especially a brilliant new song for the Dragon; her "Donkey Pot Pie," once an ensemble piece, is now a pulsating solo number called "Forever," wonderfully sung by Carrie Compere). The biggest change is actually the Dragon herself. She is a gigantic, full-stage puppet requiring four puppeteers to operate her. She roars, snaps her jaws, shoots flames and smoke and then spreads her enormous pink bat wings and flies. This character alone is worth the trip to the Cadillac Palace Theatre and is akin to the spectacle found in "Walking With Dinosaurs."
Tony-winning director Rob Ashford has collaborated with original director Jason Moore to iron out some of the problems in the original production. The result is a sleek beginning of a national tour that will delight fans of the movie while remaining a sassy, hilarious and surprisingly touching love story. The show's main themes are that you can't judge a book by its cover and it's okay to like yourself as you are, especially as voiced in the song "Freak Flag" by Pinocchio, the Wicked Witch, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Gingerbread Man and other ensemble characters.
There are so many reasons to recommend this production, especially to families who have enjoyed William Steig's delightful picture book or the many fans of the film. Jeanine Tesori's exciting score enhances the story flavored with strains of Celtic folk music (a nod to Shrek's Scottish heritage), hip-hop, Broadway standards and gospel. David Lindsay-Abaire's book and lyrics are full of wit, irreverent humor and references to other children's stories with a winking satire of some of Broadway's biggest musicals. Tony Harley's inventive, Tony Award-winning costumes and set designs will delight and amaze audiences.
With no big-name stars, this talented cast all have Broadway credentials, including the original production of Shrek. Chicagoan Eric Petersen is more lovable than frightening as the green ogre and Haven Burton's Princess Fiona is every inch the belting, belching triple-threat green goddess befitting the role. Together they make a great team, particularly in the song "I Think I Got You Beat" and in Shrek's Act I finale, "Who I'd Be." Alan Mingo Jr.'s Donkey meets the audience's expectations (and then some), and David F.M. Vaughn's hilarious villain, Lord Farquaad, is four feet of narcissistic fun and nastiness.
This is a show that's perfect for the entire family, full of talent, theatrical magic and heart. Living happily ever after is just a short trip from the swamp, through the magic forest to the Kingdom of Duloc, a journey that will turn doubting audiences into believers.