REVIEW: Shrek The Musical (Broadway in Chicago)

Big, green, and immensely entertaining

 

 Shrek - Eric Petersen as Shrek and Alan Mingo Jr as Donkey

   
Broadway in Chicago presents
   
Shrek the Musical
   
Book and Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by
Jeanine Tesori
Directed by
Jason Moore and Rob Ashford
at
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through September 5th  | 
tickets: $25-$90  |  more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Shrek (L-to-R) Eric Petersen as Shrek, Alan Mingo as Donkey, Haven Burton as Princess FionaAsk any fifth grader. All those after school specials and heart-felt parent/child talks about how everybody is beautiful are a load of hooey. “You’re ugly,” Shrek’s father tells the seven-year-old ogre during the first scene of the green guy’s eponymous musical, “That means life is going to be much harder for you.”  There’s something almost subversive (not to mention laugh-out-loud funny) about such bracing honesty.

And indeed, life for little Shrek is no frolic.  His parents’  heartfelt warning to “watch out for men with pitchforks” is grounded in reality.  While the normal kids are off learning to read and dancing around maypoles and such, poor little outcast Shrek finds himself being barbequed by angry villagers.  So begins the story of Shrek’s life as told with wit, wisdom and no small degree of sophistication by David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music).

Fractured fairytales are nothing new –  Spamalot, Into the Woods, Honk! and even Once Upon a Mattress have trod such ground. Shrek succeeds with the best of them. This is no grating child’s cartoon or soulless movie rip-off.   With one significant caveat, directors Jason Moore and Rob Ashford’s staging is marvelous. Shrek is innovative and irreverent  and – thanks to it’s affirming exhortation to let your freak flag fly – a show that feels like a celebration.

Speaking of letting your freak flag fly, Shrek is also a big fat green slice of musical-theater-geek heaven.  Insider references to GypsyDreamgirls, A Chorus Line, Wicked, Les Miserables, The Lion King and Sweet Charity pop-up in the score like little balloons of laughing gas.  And within this whackadoo land of misfit fairy tale creatures, Shrek even manages a shout-out to Judy Blume, the now-and-forever patron saint of  misfit middle schoolers.

Shrek - Haven Burton as Princess Fiona

It matters not whether you get all those inside musical theater jokes. Shrek  is mightily entertaining if you don’t know Mama Rose from “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret.” How can one not be taken with a show wherein the Big Bad Wolf laments the mean villagers who “tore my cotton granny dress (and) call me a hot and tranny mess.”  (Which he totally is, btw, not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The creative ingenuity of the production is exemplified by the ongoing sight-gag that defines the bullying tyrant, Lord Farquaad. His stunted stature is a feat of clever puppetry and movement. Despite the fact that the joke is pretty much the same every time his wizened little poppet legs wobble across the stage, it never gets tired no matter how many times it is trotted out.

Shrek 02 Which brings us to Shrek’s glaring shortcoming.  The performances are all terrific, but for this touring production, all kinds of corners seem to  have been cut in the special effects department. A crucial scene involving a fiery demise-by-dragon looks cheaper and cheesier than a hunk of cut-rate Velveeta. Ditto the transformations of Princess Fiona from traditionally pretty porcelain princess to  Elphaba-chartreuse green goddess. Such bargain-basement production values are maddening beyond their skinflint looks. Producers, apparently, see nothing wrong with demanding ticket prices for a show that’s been significantly cheapened. Maybe they think audiences are stupid, and won’t notice the sloppiness. They’re wrong.

That said, Shrek’s cast is faultless. As the titular ogre, Eric Petersen’s booming voice matches his huge-hearted performance.  Haven Burton’s Princess Fiona is delightfully off-kilter, displaying just the kind of crazed mania you’d expect from someone locked in a padded tower for over a decade . David F. M. Vaughn’s  vainglorious Lord Farquaad has a smirky demeanor utterly befitting a man sporting a Prince Valiant bowl-cut on purpose. And as Donkey, Alan Mingo Jr. is worthy sidekick.

Josh Prince’s choreography is a hoot, from the chorus line of rats  (“Morning Person”) to the march of the misfits (“Freak Flag.”) And when everybody  rocks out to “I’m A Believer,” the sense of joy is so palpable you almost forgive those chintzy special effects .

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Shrek Cast 01

   
    

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Review: Drury Lane’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

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Drury Lane Oakbrook presents:

Thoroughly Modern Millie

by Richard Morris, Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan
directed by William Osetek
thru December 20th (ticket info)

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

The traditional Thoroughly Modern Millie is given a new breath of life in Drury Lane’s high quality, highly energetic and enjoyable new musical, directed by William Osetek. From top to bottom, set to song, this is a near flawless performance of traditional musical theatre produced with Broadway-like standards – just  on a smaller scale.

thoroughly-modern-millie-3 Thoroughly Modern Millie is the story of a young woman who has moved to the big city in search of becoming a “modern woman,” one in search of wealth not love. Set in the early 1920’s, when the social and economic climate is changing, especially for women who have recently joined the work place and have a new independence when seeking happiness. With nowhere to go she takes refuge in a hotel that houses other single women, most of whom are out-of-work actresses, but unknown to Millie and the other girls the hotel is also a front for Mrs. Meers “white-slave” trafficking business. Unaware of the dangers around her, Millie is stubbornly set on marrying her rich boss and decides that there is no room for love in a modern woman as she flirts to get his attention.

Millie is magnificent. Holly Ann Butler makes her Drury Lane debut as Millie, and her tremendous talents stand out in every aspect of her performance. She can sing (whoa can she sing) dance, act and is innocently beautiful on stage as she takes the audience through the streets of New York as designed by Kevin Depinet.

Kevin Depinet has designed an open stage with a towering 3-dimensional backdrop of Manhattan creating depth and distance on stage. The huge buildings have a romantic feeling intensified by the changing colors and brightness that shines through the windows of each building depending on the time of day. The set hovers over the cast creating a visual sense of the magic that exist downtown.

The choreography is exceptional, and gives one an example of the meaningful influence that top-notch choreography can have with the plot and overall enjoyment of a production. Tammy Mader’s choreography brings the book and songs together, fluidly portraying individual emotions; creating entertaining numbers that enhance the feelings surrounding the stage.

The production really picks up in the second act where the choreography gets even more complicated, with surprise quirky moves, and the plot thickens with a merry-go-round of love interests to go along with Mrs. Meers increasingly deviant plan of kidnapping white-slaves. Millie’s journey to discover the value of true love rather than the materialistic measures of success is guided by the wealthy Muzzy (Melody Betts), and everyone finds their way to true love and happiness – well almost everyone.

thoroughly-modern-millie-2The energetic musical numbers throughout the production are led by truly gifted voices and enhanced by the full production of each song. Actresses and actors like Holly Ann Butler, Randall Dodge and Melody Betts are performances in themselves, and it is a special experience to hear a group of talented vocalists sing together at such a high caliber. My personal favorite is the deep baritone voice of Randall Dodge as Millie’s boss.

Along with the spectacular songs, a ton of comedy is slipped into the plot and brought out especially well by gifted and seasoned actresses like Paula Scrofano (Mrs. Meers,) and Sharon Sachs (Mrs. Flannery), who connect well to the audience with their well-timed antics displaying the off-beat personalities of their characters. Richard Manera and Paul Marinez (Ching Ho and Bun Foo) also bring continuous laughter into the musical with their expressive remarks and interactions with Mrs. Meers.

Drury Lane’s Thoroughly Modern Millie is a top notch professional production that is as good as any musical you will see of this size. The cast is filled with talented stars, the creative team is at its best, and the stage is strikingly magical. For musical theater lovers, this is the show you want to see.  And for those new to the theater, this might be the musical that sucks you in to Chicago’s musical theatre scene.

Rating: ★★★

 

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

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 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

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Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.

Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune’s main theatre critic, Chris Jones, presents his top 10 plays of 2008:

 

1. A Trip to Bountiful  (Goodman Theatre)
by Horton Foote
Standouts: Harris Yulin (director), performance: Lois Smith
     
2. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director), actors: Jennifer Grace (as Emily), David Cromer (narrator)
 
     
3. Picnic  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Inge
Standouts: David Cromer (Director)
 
     
4. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); actors: Kate Fry, E.Faye Butler
 
     
5. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Standout: Kate Whoriskey (director)
 
     
6. Four Places  (Victory Gardens)
by Joel Drake Johnson
Standouts: Sandy Shinner (director)
 
     
7. Sweet Charity  (Drury Lane Oakbrook)
by Cy Coleman
Standouts: Jim Corti (director), Mitzi Hamilton (choreographer)
 
     
8. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
9. The Seafarer  (Steppenwolf Theatre)
by Conor McPherson
Standout: Francis Guinan (says Jones: probably the best male performance of the year)
 
     
10. Journey’s End (Griffin Theatre)
by Jonathan Berry
 

Honorable mentions: (alphabetically): America: All Better! (Second City), Don’t Dress for Dinner (British American Stage Company – at Royal George), Grey Gardens (Northlight Theatre), If All The World Were Paper (Chicago Children’s Theatre), Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night (Theo Ubique). Les Miserables (Marriott Theatre), Million Dollar Quartet (Deegee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights – at the Apollo Theater), A Taste of Honey (Shattered Globe Theatre), Tomorrow Morning (Hilary A. Williams LLC), The Voysey Inheritance (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company).

 

To see further discussion regarding each show, go to Chris Jones’ The Theater Loop blog posting.