In order to get through life successfully you need at least two things: An ogre friend who is big and green, and a sassy donkey. At least, that's the message that's being sent to youngsters in Shrek, the Musical, now at Beck Center.
That, of course, makes success hard to attain for most of us, since smart-mouthed donkeys are in short supply. But in this wonderful production (with a couple of wrinkles), the green ogre who farts, and the donkey, and the princess who farts once again come out on top. This is due in large part to the book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and the music by Jeanine Tesori.
But without the right people in key roles, this rich material can still lay an egg. This Beck version doesn't get everything right, starting with Gilgamesh (G.A.) Taggett in the title role. While he has a masterful stage presence and powerful singing voice, Taggett isn't quite as warm and amusing as local actor Patrick Ciamacco has been as Shrek in previous productions at Mercury Summer Stock (now Mercury Theater Company) and Near West Theatre.
From the moment the slight 7-year-old Shrek is sent off by himself into the cold, cruel world by his parents, in traditional ogre fashion, we are with him as he encounters a volley of unusual characters. At the same time, the young Princess Fiona is being locked away in a tower by her parents, awaiting the arrival of her true love — which is not particularly woke. Hey, life in fairy tales ain't no walk in the park.
Fiona's first big moment arrives when we see how she grew over the years in the song "I Know It's Today." Three performers — Jordyn Freetage as the youngster, Pilar Lee as the teenager, and Natalie Steen as the grown-up Fiona—dream about how the incarceration will end. And they all give fine voice to those lyrics that reflect the girl and woman's dream dude: "So I know he'll appear/And his armor will be blinding/As shiny as his perfect teeth/And manly hose." Little does she know.
Meanwhile, the first eccentric individual Shrek meets is an unnamed Donkey, who drops in on Shrek from a tree where he'd been hiding from the soldiers of the mean Lord Farquaad. Remell Bowens animates this irrepressible yet emotionally needy jackass with such familiar verve, he could have stepped right out of the animated Dream Works film that inspired the stage play.
He and Taggett go though the usual buddy-flick conflicts until they bond on a mission in the weird world that is only described as "long ago and far away." That mission involves getting rid of all the fairy tale characters who have been exiled by the Lord into the swamp that Shrek and his burro pal call home.
Those exiled folks include Humpty Dumpty, the Ugly Duckling, Peter Pan and all the other oddballs who populate those stories. It's always kind of a rush to see everyone from the Three Little Pigs to the Three Blind Mice gathered in one place, outside of our kids' bookshelf.
Once Shrek is convinced to accept this impossible mission on behalf of Pinocchio and pals, he and the burro-with-attitude head off toward the castle of Farquaad. This journey, which includes a perilous traversing of a bridge over a fiery river, is brought to life through evocative projections designed by Brittany Merenda.
Turns out, Farquaad is, you know, short — requiring actor Brian Altman to walk and stand on his knees with tiny fake legs dangling in front. This is always a hilarious sight gag, but Altman doesn't take enough chances with this goofy Lord and villain, in a role that begs for wild comic invention. Actually, Altman plays it pretty straight, a decision that makes all the short jokes that are volleyed about seem kind of mean instead of funny. Farquaad not only has to be short, he has to be imaginatively nasty and odious to make the humor zing.
Truly, this is one show where you don't want the audience to feel guilty, since Shrek and Fiona face off in a belching and farting contest, sealing their love match as two outsiders who need to rely on each other for support.
Overall, the production is massive and detailed with fine musical direction by Larry Goodpaster and only a couple minor glitches. The dragon — beautifully designed by Jim Gough and Russ Borski, and given gorgeous voice in "Forever" by Sydney Thomas — is less than lethal when it attacks Farquaad near the end. There must be some way to make that moment a bit more graphic and satisfying than just having Farquaad disappear.
And it's always a bit disappointing when the show is capped off by a lame cover of a Neil Diamond cover of the Monkees' song, "I'm a Believer." Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire could have come up with something better than "What's the use in tryin'/All you get is pain/When I needed sunshine I got rain."
Other than that, there's a lot to delight the kiddies in Shrek at Beck. No pain there.