Encore Michigan

Riverbank’s ‘Shrek’ a fairy good time

Review March 25, 2017 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, Mich.–A princess, a curse, a dragon, an ogre, a diminutive bully who wants to be king, a swamp full of sassy fairy tale characters and a clueless donkey: throw them all onto a stage at The Riverbank Theatre in Marine City and what do you get? The hilarious tale Shrek The Musical, of course.

Shrek is a crabby green ogre, a loner who wallows in his crabbiness and his swamp. He can’t stand it when his solitude is invaded by fairytale characters, but they have nowhere else to go. It turns out they are refugees of a sort, cast out of the kingdom of Duloc by Lord Farquaad in his attempt to create an idyllic realm for himself.

The only way Shrek can rid himself of the encroachers is to help Farquaad get a princess to marry so he can become king. Conveniently, Princess Fiona awaits rescue in a nearby tower, which is inconveniently guarded by a dragon. Shrek is further inconvenienced by the presence of a very clingy and annoying donkey. All Shrek has to do is get the princess away from the tower and deliver her to Farquaad, and then he can get back to his wallowing.

Because characters often turn out to be different on the inside than they appear on the outside, however, Shrek’s simple goal becomes more complex. After rescuing Fiona from the tower, Shrek clashes with her when it becomes clear she has her own agenda. They argue over whose situation is worse; but their arguing leads to a realization that they are more similar than they thought. Shrek begins to question his very nature as an ogre. Donkey, who is both clueless and insightful, sees something between Shrek and Fiona that they didn’t see themselves. But Fiona is also keeping a secret that crushes Shrek, and he follows through on his goal of delivering her to Farquaad.

With the help of Donkey, now more a loyal friend than a pest, Shrek admits he has been wrong about Fiona and tries to win her back. The fairy tale characters, newly empowered by embracing their “freakishness,” help Shrek win the day. As a result, Shrek and Fiona’s true characters are revealed to all. Oh, and Farquaad gets just what he deserves. Plus, we have a dance party at the end.

Shrek The Musical, with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, is based on the DreamWorks Animation film and the book by William Steig. This production, directed by Kathy Vertin, harnesses all the humor and character quirks that film viewers will remember.

Shrek, played by Sean Michaels, has let the outside world define him, and plays right into the self-fulfilling prophecy by claiming he is mean and ugly, and wants to be left alone! Maybe. He lets Donkey tag along on his quest, though Shrek protests about it too much. And he is more than willing to engage in silliness with Fiona. When Shrek finally looks inward, he discovers an ogre who really wants to have friends. Michaels artfully plays the dour and crabby Shrek, while letting tiny glimpses of the hopeful and romantic Shrek appear now and then.

Donkey, played with great comedic skill by Chase LePla, is every bit the pesky, irritating tag-along no one wants to be around; with little focus and no filter, Donkey hilariously says aloud every little thought that pops into his head. Yet somehow, by the end he becomes the one friend you cannot imagine being without, his honesty and loyalty becoming indispensable.

Princess Fiona is portrayed by Brittany Smith as the naïve little girl who grows up believing in all the fairy tales with romantic, happy endings. She believes in them so much that she can be a bit demanding in attempting to make real life into the fairy tale. Her biggest challenge is separating fiction from reality, and making a choice between them.

Lord Farquaad is played by Aaron Dennis Smith, who rolls humor, vanity and denial of reality all into one package. Like the emperor with no clothes, Farquaad is so consumed with his own desire to be king that he fails to recognize the ridiculousness of his own existence.

A lot of credit must be given to the ensemble cast of fairy tale characters. Though their stories are not individually detailed, as a group they represent disenfranchised nerds everywhere. Like Shrek, they initially accept the role society has given them as outcasts and freaks. When they finally embrace their individuality, they realize their true power. Throughout the performance, individual characterizations add a lot to the humor of the show: Gingy moves stiffly as a crunchy cookie; Ugly Duckling waddles; Pinnochio believes his own lie; Big Bad Wolf adopts bad boy habits.

Let’s not forget, this is a musical. There are several very impressive vocal performances, especially the duet between Dragon (Pamela Plewa) and Donkey (LePla). One of the most creative musical moments portrays Fiona as a child (Sami Sckrocki), a teenager (Alexandria Demski) and a woman (Smith), singing a hopeful trio about imminent rescue. “I Think I Got You Beat,” a Shrek and Fiona duet, is not only full of fun and hilarity, it becomes the pivotal moment when they begin to look past outward appearances.

There were a few musical moments when the mic balance was not ideal, and there were a couple scene changes that could have been a bit smoother, but that is not what audiences will remember. They may not even leave the theatre raving about the music, which felt incidental to the story in many places. They will, however, be talking about how thoroughly funny this show was, how many times they laughed aloud, how the little details brought the characters to life. There is no better way than humor to teach a wise lesson: don’t ever judge a person on outward appearance.

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Week of 3/18/2019

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