December 17, 2008

Why I'm So Disenchanted with "Shrek"

Children still believed in fairy tales when I was a little girl. Maybe not literally, but certainly wistfully (I mean who doesn’t want a happy ending?). By the time I hit my tweens, though, the coolest kids were into the “Fractured Fairytales” that were a regular part of the “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” Those tales were mischievously subversive parodies, underscored by the tongue-in-cheek narration of the great character actor Edward Everett Horton. Today, of course, even the tiniest tykes view fairy tales primarily as source material for satire. Which brings us to Shrek, The Musical, which opened at the Broadway Theatre on Sunday.

Cartoonist William Steig’s original 1990 children’s book, “Shrek!” was a funny but simple story about an ugly and smelly green ogre, who not only got to be the hero of his tale but to get the girl too. The folks at Hollywood’s DreamWorks film studio added a more complicated storyline that brought in other fairy tale characters, lots of other pop cultural references, a few digs at their arch nemesis Disney and some inspired casting choices (Mike Myers voicing Shrek with a Scottish burr, Eddie Murphy as his smart-mouthed pal Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as Fiona, the spunky princess Shrek loves).

The result was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful series of animated movies (“Shrek 4” is now in the works). The first was one of my favorite movies of 2001 (I still like happy endings). Having triumphed on Disney’s movie turf, DreamWorks was eager to send its ogre on to challenge the Mouse Factory on Broadway and reportedly has spent $24 million to do it (Click here to read a New York Times story about Shrek’s transformation from page-to-screen-to-stage).

Most of the professional theater critics, seemingly always looking for some reason to knock Disney, have gone out of their way to welcome this latest incarnation of Shrek. “If the storytelling is bumpy in patches and the songs don't quite soar, the show never stints on spectacle or laughs, making it a viable contender for a slice of the Disney market on Broadway,” writes Variety’s David Rooney. Well, maybe. But it seems to me that a big, expensive musical like this one ought to be able to offer more than a herky-jerky story and mundane songs. And that, despite Brian D'Arcy James' game performance under pounds of green latex, is what you get with this Shrek.

The book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his moving drama Rabbit Hole (and also gets extra points from me because he’s a fellow alum of Sarah Lawrence College), but it seems as though his DreamWorks handlers didn’t allow him to veer too far from the script of the first “Shrek” movie. Except to add a few jokey references to other Broadway shows (but that, of course, has become de rigueur in contemporary musical comedies) and some belching and farting jokes.

Lindsay-Abaire also seems to have been forcibly enrolled in the Mel Brooks school of lyric writing—you string a bunch of words together, rhyme a few of them and voilà, a song. The music is by three-time Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori but there’s nothing really memorable about it either. In fact, on the night my sister Joanne and I saw the show, the exit music the orchestra played was “I’m A Believer”, the old Monkees song that was featured in the movie, and I enjoyed it better than anything that had been played during the stage show.

That’s not the only thing I enjoyed. Here are three others: 1. The always-perky Sutton Foster was, to borrow a fairy tale term, “just right” as Fiona, 2. Christopher Sieber was a riot as the villainous, vainglorious and vertically-challenged Lord Farquaad; not since José Ferrer taped his legs to his thighs to play Toulouse-Latrec (corrected from the Cyrano de Bergerac that I originally wrote, thanks to the eagle-eyes of my fellow blogger Mondschein at Third Row, Mezzanine) has an actor accomplished so much on his knees and never so hilariously, 3. the ogre ears they’re selling at the souvenir stand are adorable and they only cost $15.

Am I being too witchy? Well, maybe. But as Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic work, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales”: “to hold the child’s attention, a story must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must simulate his imagination.” In this case, there is, alas, no truly happy ending.

1 comment:

Vance said...

I'm actually surprised how good some of the reviews for this show were. I thought they were going to be (deservedly) vicious. But ah, you hit the point on the head in the critics attempt to knock Disney.