Review: “Shrek the Musical” Receives Roaring Approval

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"Shrek the Musical" at Civic Theatre

Like Shrek says, fairy tales could use an update.  And that’s exactly what happens in “Shrek the Musical,” which opened Friday at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

The packed house of about 700 roared their approval to song after song that breathed new life, enthusiasm and humor into the time-honored characters from nursery rhymes as well as the newer characters such as Shrek, Fiona, Lord Farquaad and Donkey from the 2001 animated movie.

Beauty takes a back seat to devotion as the lonely green ogre wins the princess, who’s not exactly the fairest of them all.  Scott Mellema is endearing as the brooding green guy with a touch of Scottish brogue. He uses skunk cologne and wants to build a wall to keep everyone out.  A pair of red-haired cuties (Kiera Grace and Madison Smits) portray the growing princess Fiona trapped in a tower, but Carly Uthoff becomes the spunky grown-up gal who gets into a farting contest with the smelly Shrek and sheds her long skirt to tap dance with a snazzy rat pack.

Titus Hankins often steals the show as the jabbering Donkey, especially when he sings the jazzy “Make a Move” number. And Kyle Cain does an amazing job as the pint-sized Lord Farquaad. His royal cape with dark lining helps disguise the fact that Cain is doing the whole show on his knees, but it doesn’t keep him from running around the stage, dancing, even climbing on a platform.  When he sings the “Ballad of Farquaad,” we learn his voice is much bigger than his character’s height would suggest.

Costume designer Robert Fowle and his band of volunteers have really outdone themselves with everything from a talking gingerbread man to a Pinocchio (Cullen Dyk) with woodgrained arms and legs and a nose that actually grows when he lies. There’s Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pan, the three bears, the three pigs and many more. There’s even three blind mice.  Costumers have created an army of guards that glisten and the perfect citizens of Duloc wear sculpted-to-perfection wigs.

But my favorite creation of the whole show is a graceful hot pink dragon that glides across the stage with the help of five puppeteers and sings with the sultry, roof-scorching voice of Mary Kate Murnen.  The combination of big-eyed monster and torchy temptress is electrifying. The dragon was created by specialty designer Kathie Johnson and named Luci in honor of Luci King, a longtime volunteer in the costume department who passed away this spring.

Scenic designer David Len has created a series of sumptuous sets from Shrek’s plant-covered hovel to a variety of castle backdrops and forest scenes.  Civic Theatre’s overhead fly rail system is as busy as Broadway as the huge backdrops fall soundlessly into place and then disappear when the scene changes.  Moody fog surrounds the castle tower as needed. Director Bruce Tinker has also made good use of the theater aisles with characters popping up or escaping into the audience.

The production also relies on its own animation/video scenes including a smart aleck talking mirror and a background scene with Puss-in-Boots cavorting.

Although the story and characters would delight most kids, the two and a half-hour running time might be a little long for some youngsters. Most of Friday’s opening night audience was adults, but that didn’t keep them from cheering and applauding their support for this updated look at happily ever after.

“Shrek the Musical,” June 1-17 at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

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