When "Shrek the Musical" first appeared on Broadway in 2008, with decidedly headache-inducing results, it seemed as if the cartoon-to-musical gravy train was kaput. This 2001 DreamWorks movie came toward the beginning of what one might call the self-aware phase in animated family entertainment, wherein every minute of every film seemed packed with irony operating on multiple levels. "Shrek" was already on the brink of being too clever for its own good. On Broadway, where the initial production was truly massive, David Lindsay-Abaire's gag-stuffed book finally pushed the green ogre and his princess over the edge.
Has Rachel Rockwell, a director known for instilling heart into her shows, including her unforgettably beautiful and moving production last summer of "Beauty and the Beast," pulled them back?
Only to a point. Let's stipulate right here that the summer family musicals on Navy Pier produced by Chicago Shakespeare (this one is about 75 minutes long and has multiple daytime performances) are of a much higher quality than most seasonal productions in tourist environments, including competing shows in Chicago. For a reasonable cost, one gets a mostly Equity cast (Michael Aaron Lindner, the fine Chicago actor playing Shrek, spent many months on the road playing one of the dads in "Mamma Mia!"; and Summer Naomi Smart, who plays Fiona, is one of Chicago's busiest musical talents), a big-scale production (designer Scott Davis and videographer Mike Tutaj combine their talents), live musicians and Chicago Shakespeare's typically elegant theatergoing experience. The green makeup is more of a light dusting than a transformation, but otherwise all of the familiar visual tricks of the piece are in place, including Theresa Ham's costumes. Most out-of-towners would be duly impressed.
This young-audiences version of "Shrek" is abbreviated; it's about half the material that was in the tour that played downtown Chicago a couple of years ago. I wouldn't say you miss the half that hit the cutting-room floor (all of Jeanine Tesori's best songs are still there), but the chopping board also exacerbated the show's frenetic element. There's so much plot to fit in now, the characters have even less room to breathe, and there's even less opportunity to establish credible relationships.
Nonetheless, Rockwell has some top-drawer talents: Lindner and Smart are skilled enough to still get something warm and fuzzy going, and the very dry Travis Taylor makes a funny Lord Farquaad, the one bit of comedy in this piece that really translated well to the stage. James Earl Jones II has to race through the Donkey's shortened shtick, but he has his moments, and several of the production numbers are zesty indeed. All in all, it's a very competent summer show. Most kids around me were having a great time.
Still, "Shrek" just was not exactly the most daring choice of material. And this production tracks the original (well, half the original) much too closely for my tastes. One wishes the hugely talented Rockwell could have thrown more away, drilled down on Tesori's oft-submerged musical numbers, and relied more on a fresh theatrical metaphor and the power of the imagination and the heart.
When: Through Sept. 1
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Tickets: $18-$25 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com