Disney + “Wicked” = “Shrek The Musical”

Can a big new mixed-bag Broadway show like “Shrek The Musical” survive the current economic downturn?
Already the financial forecast for January and February is so grim that about a dozen Broadway shows will be closing right after New Year’s Day — including last year’s Tony winner for best musical, “Spring Awakening,” which should have had a few more year’s life in it.
Hoping to tap into all of that extra money Disney has earned from Broadway, DreamWorks Animation has launched a theatrical division with “Shrek” as its first New York production.
I was at the show last night for research purposes — a forthcoming piece on one of the performers and another general Broadway story for next month — and while the audience response was good, it wasn’t that over-the-top hysteria that now seems to be mandatory for a musical “hit.”
DreamWorks hired top talent to put “Shrek” on stage. The composer is Jeanine Tesori whose credits include one of the best Broadway scores of recent seasons — “Caroline, or Change.” The book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for “Rabbit Hole.” And “Shrek” is directed by Jason Moore whose staging of “Avenue Q” was a major factor in that show upseting “Wicked” in the Tony race five years ago.
Unlike some of the Disney musicals which have tended to feature rather anonymous ensembles, “Shrek” has a few of the best performing talents on Broadway at the moment — Sutton Foster, who won a Tony for “Thoroughly Modern Mille,” Brian D’Arcy James who has scored in a number of big musicals in recent seasons, and the comic dynamo Christopher Sieber who was a Tony nominee for “Spamalot.”
Each of the three stars gets a chance to score in a big number, but “Shrek” doesn’t really hold together as a musical. In trying to put a hit animated film on stage — in very literal terms — DreamWorks has run into an almost insurmountable obstacle. The show can never really break free of its cartoon origins and too many scenes subject the leads to embarrassing low comedy (Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona and Brian D’Arcy James in the title role indulge in a belching and farting contest that made me cringe for the stars).
The green-skinned anti-hero all too often plays like a cruder version of the green-faced “wicked witch” in the long-running hit “Wicked.” That show already hammered audiences with the “beauty is only skin deep” message that “Shrek” treats like a newly minted notion. The stage Shrek also gets more than one “I’ve got to be me”-style anthem that sound like pallid echoes of the “Defying Gravity” crowd-pleaser in “Wicked.”
From my point of view the night was redeemed by two killer numbers. Sieber as a pint-sized Lord Farquaad leading a terrific dancing chorus through “What’s Up, Duloc?” (above) and Foster’s Act Two opener, “Morning Person,” which allows the actress her only opportunity to sing and dance full-out. (I hope the 6’2” Sieber has a physical therapist on call — he spends the entire show on his knees to achieve the effect of only being about four feet tall).
I was glad to see those two stars score in such clever numbers, but the rest of the show does not measure up.

Joe Meyers