Book and Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by Jeanine Tessori
Directed by Jason Moore
Starring Brian D'Arcy James, Sutton Foster,
Daniel Breaker, Christopher Sieber
Broadway Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

It is finally true that we must evaluate what we must also
finally call “franchise theatre” somewhat differently than we would evaluate anything else. I don’t pretend to know exactly what “pure theatre” is, but let’s say, fir the sake of argument, that it exists for its own sake; that the impetus behind its creation is the desire for a theatrical work.

                  Let’s say for the sake of argument this even includes movie studios exploiting their archives for adaptable films, like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Though a successful film, it had long been out of the public eye when the musical began taking shape, and neither its characters nor indicia had become high profile merchandising symbols. The creative team were under no obligation to replicate styles, interpretations, trademark associations, or even complement the film in the public eye. Though studio-produced, it could still go through some version of the normal development process. 

                  A franchise show however, is first and foremost a merchandising tie-in, and though it may be staffed with an ace creative team, intending to give it the same care and attention an ace novelist would give the paperback novelization, it still has to exist side-by-side with the less elegant items such as lunchboxes and McDonalds collect ‘em all action figure promos. And as such, it must be gauged by two individual measuring sticks—related and intertwined, yet capable of individual results: (1) the craft, resourcefulness, artistry and elegance of the transformation; and (2) how satisfied the audience is with the final product, and its resemblance to the original, or rather, its ability to meet or exceed their expectations of a similar visceral response…while making audience members who may be new to the property into converts. As with any tie-in merchandising the two standards of artistic quality and commercial effectiveness aren’t necessarily connected.

                  If the audience feel they’re authentically getting the theatrical equivalent of the film, one can be successful with a theme-park literalization featuring a solid script and score by the original authors (Beauty and the Beast)—or a genuine theatrical reinterpretation with a decent script and lousy new songs (The Lion King). Success and failure seems more to be about “getting” the property on a fanboy/fangirl level. Tarzan failed at this (it tried to present an origin myth without the slightest idea of what an origin myth is, or why its native properties are almost antithetical to musicalization [click here for further explication]); and ironically so did Young Frankenstein, whose own original comic co-mastermind, Mel Brooks, missed the one thing its co-creator Gene Wilder (not part of the theatrical team) brought to the first party: heart.

                  Believe it or not, I think a strong case can be made that the best franchise musical ever is  a 2001 European effort, specifically Belgian (though very much in an American style), based on an epic story from the canon of Tintin graphic novels by the late cartoonist-scripter Hergé. For reasons I’m not at liberty to divulge, the two full-length videos of it—a televised version of the original mounting in its authors’ language of Flemish [Dutch] for audiences in Antwerp; and a pro-shot archival version of the same production remounted almost immediately thereafter (with an almost completely different cast) in a French adaptation for audiences in Charleroi—are not commercially available, nor are there plans to release them. And it would be too long a sidebar (and indulgence) to go into detail about the show itself here. Suffice it to say the integrity and high art of the creative team, whose adaptation managed utter faithfulness without dogged slavishness, was perfectly balanced with meticulous “purist” presentation of a sensibility and graphic style the audience knew intimately. I don’t mean to say the show itself was perfect, nor that there weren’t aspects of it that (as almost always in foreign language musicals) weren’t a bit naïve. But it triumphed above all such considerations because the show had behind it in force the thing that distinguishes any good tie-in: real, communicated passion for its universe. (I wish you could see it. There are, however, some nice clips on YouTube, in both languages, including a few from a scaled-down 2007 Antwerp revival. For reference’s sake: In Flemish the title is Kuifje: de Zonnetempel; in French it’s Tintin: Le Temple du Soliel; in English it would have been Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, not a literal translation, but the English title of the adapted story.)

                  Yet I mention it here because it does, inevitably, lead to Shrek: The Musical.


The Physical Production
and Jason Moore’s Direction:

                  As with most of the animated features that have landed thus onstage, Shrek’s design is a theme-park literalization: the scenery suggests the detail without the scope or the charm; the costumes suggest the shapes (via padding, body-suits and prosthetics) without the magical proportion—i.e. Shrek (Brian D’Arcy James) isn’t much taller than Donkey (Daniel Breaker), over whom he loomed in the film.

                  Where “real magic” is a physical impossibility, some imaginative puppet techniques take up much of the slack. Perhaps the best such bit (milked for numerous variations) is the short stature of dictatorial antagonist Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber) whose flowing cape disguises [sort of, but the imperfection is intentional] that the actor is walking around on padded knees in “invisible” black pants. But attached to the front of those pants, from torso to knee, are the Prince’s “real” little legs in their yellow leggings.

                  As long as the action keeps moving forward, director Jason Moore is able to keep it all moving apace, his experience helming Avenue Q helping to keep the puppet work looking weirdly “natural,” a logical extension of the wacky universe. He does founder in Act Two, but I’ll get to that.

The Cast

                  The show’s best asset. All the leads are game, and hip to the game, and manage a trick that eludes many franchise shows, a balance between accurately putting over the cartoon iconography and authentically presenting recognizable human dimensions. The aforementioned Mssrs. Sieber and Breaker are particularly good at it. Sutton Foster, as the secretly enchanted Princess Fiona is less encumbered, since for most of the evening her character is pointedly human, but she too is a shamelessly inspired comic presence, constantly puncturing the classic, dull template of damsel in distress. Weirdly, it’s Mr. James in the tile role who seems—not lesser, exactly, he doesn’t fail to put it over (nor does he fail in the audience’s affections) but his more life-sized Shrek seems more trapped than the original in the role of straight man to the eccentrics around him.

 The Book and Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire

                  Mr. Abaire’s libretto sticks fairly closely to the film, but hugely exaggerates the reliance on self-referential or “inside” and anachronistic humor. Which makes it all seem a little less sweet and a little more calculated. Where he runs into trouble, trouble echoed by all who must follow his lead, is in the same place most animated-to-live action pieces fall into trouble: He hasn’t found an organic way to make the story “tell” longer than the source film’s 89 minutes, so he attenuates through overwriting and repetition. The good news is, at least he’s savvy enough to localizethe attenuation to thye budding romanve between Shrek and Fiona in Act Two. It doesn’t bear the extra weight easily, but at least that weight is kept off the plot mechanics

                  His lyrics are a little harder to describe, and the description may be too “inside” to translate to a lay reader: Though a seasoned playwright, he’s a first time lyricist, both instinctively gifted, yet at entry level because he doesn’t know enough about refining shape and structure. For example: the lyrics deliver basic things like scan and proper rhyme (most of the time), but they’re a wee bit shorter on consistent comprehensibility because every now and again he’s apt to let them ramble slightly off-topic, or wander off point-of-view. And he’ll sometimes mark time in light verse rather than take the tale or the character(s) forward. And twice in the show he builds contrasting lyrics toward counterpointing melodies and both times you can hear the counterpoint coming a mile away. (The trick to counterpoint is making it seem unexpected, if not downright surprising, and at least half the camouflage responsibility is in the lyric, which needs to misdirect you from the strategy and keep you focused on story and character.)

The Music by Jeanine Tesori

                  Lively, attractive, aptly applied and competent. A several-times-produced composer of my acquaintance put it a little less kindly with the word vanilla, adding “It’s all 60s and 70s pop rock,” and a lot of it sure is. Occasionally it rambles right along with the lyrics, but the biggest problem, for me, is that the music doesn’t seem to be innately from the world of Shrek, but rather some inoffensive, non-specific library of familiar and agreeable pop locutions that don’t violate it, but don’t enhance it either. I’m not sure what “authentic” music the fanciful, whimsical world of Shrek might give rise to, nor am I saying there’s only one solution, but to paraphrase what Aaron Sorkin wrote about the not-dissimilar quality of gravitas (by which I mean richness, not solemnity), you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you come across it. (By contrast, the astonishing Tintin score—by a Belgian composer named Dirk Brossé—seems to bubble up from the heart of the story and its characters, its pop colors but a carefully and sparingly applied seasoning in a much more flavorful stew. As I said, you can hear some on You Tube [pay especial attention to the entries with a little plus-sign icon on the upper right corner of the screen, as those are excerpts from the televised full production, as opposed to variety show clips or pop crossover videos]; the Dutch album is rare, but still available through Brossé’s website []; and the French album is still available via the international internet musical/soundtrack shop,


                  There is absolutely no question that, in general, they’re happy enough. They’re not thinking about the niceties of traditional musical theatre structure because most of them (and it’s the majority that matters here) have entered the theatre with the film’s outline firmly in mind. They want to see if the musical will hit the same points in the same or equivalent ways. And by and large it does. The score is bright and happy, which matches their general impression of the event, and its intention, if not its every phrase, is comprehensible enough. The musical is a tie-in product worthy of the name and it adds luster to the franchise.

                  Does it do the same for musical theatre as an art form? There not so much.

                  But holding that against it is a lonely and futile game…

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