Love At First Fart
By Tom Wachunas
Note to self: The next time Jonathan Tisevich directs a Players Guild Theatre production, sneak into rehearsals to find out how he’s able to so consistently inspire sustained, high-energy performances from his cast. Does he spike the drinking water, cast hypnotic spells, conjure the Muses? His impressive track record as a former Players Guild Resident Director includes electrifying productions of Ragtime, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Oliver, among others. Whatever his methodology might be, and with this superbly capable cast, he’s outdone himself with Shrek The Musical.
Based on the DreamWorks animated film, with lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, this is the story of Shrek, a friendless ogre whose private swamp is invaded by a veritable mob of fairytale characters exiled by from the land of Duloc by mad Lord Farquaad. To regain the deed to his land, Shrek must find the maiden Fiona, imprisoned in a dragon’s lair, and bring her to Farquaad to wed. The story is laced with sophisticated humor and inside jokes, often geared more toward adult appreciation. That said, there’s plenty of snap, giggle and pop in this send-up of classic fantasy tales to engage the whole family.
Micah Harvey, as the cranky green ogre with the Scottish brogue, is a credible embodiment of Shrek’s heft and heart, bringing to the role a robustly honest singing voice. As the story progresses, he slowly but surely sheds his fierce territorial and cantankerous demeanor, no doubt a surrender to the comically annoying antics and magnanimous nature of his travelling companion, Donkey. In that role, Brandon Talbert is delightfully fleet of hoof and mouth – a hyperactive gadfly, unafraid of Shrek’s “ferocity” and who brings palpable soul to his singing.
In a fascinating bit of casting turnabout, Craig Joseph, who has in the past directed remarkable Guild productions such as Legally Blonde and Hairspray, owns the role of Lord Farquaad. Bedecked in a clever sight-gag costume that leaves him notably short in physical stature but long on show-stopping laughs, Joseph commands our attentions with brazen aplomb. He presents a deliriously weird portrait of an eccentric, strutting megalomaniac with an inferiority complex. Alternately a needy bad boy, a bossy clown, a calculating misanthrope, he’s an altogether high-stepping parody of fantasy villains.
An eminently gifted actress and singer, Brittany Lynne Eckstrom plays Fiona with marvelous expressivity. At times sweet and vulnerable, at others sardonic and earthy, she delivers some of the evening’s most engaging scenes and songs. Among those, I Know It’s Today is a reflection on her hope to be rescued by her true love, sung as if unfolding across time, joined by her young self (Brianna Swinford) and teen self (Natalie Welch). Their harmonies are utterly gorgeous. And I Think I Got You Beat is a raucous duet with Shrek, wherein they argue as to who has had the harder life. It’s here that Shrek finds to his delight that Fiona can fart and belch as effectively as any…ogre. Ain’t love grand?
A particularly electrifying component is appearance of Tahja Grier, singing as the Dragon in her fiery, no-holds-barred R&B style. And more giddy thrills are provided by the ensemble of displaced classic fairy tale characters who champion rather than hide their freakishness, all led by the hilariously frenetic Pinocchio, played by Greg Rininger.
You’d think that translating the magic of digital animation on the scale of the Shrek films to a live stage would be an impossible task. The visuals alone might seem too weighty and cumbersome. But the elaborate costuming by Jensen Glick doesn’t limit the cast’s ability to stay infectiously lithe and vivacious while performing the Broadway-caliber choreography by Michael Akers and Mary Vacani. Combined with the scenic design by Joshua Erichsen and the exhilarating live orchestra under Steve Parsons, this is a happy conspiracy of production elements that makes for dazzling doings in Duloc.
Shrek The Musical, Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, THROUGH JUNE 1, 1001 Market Ave. S., Canton. Tickets $25 adults, $23 seniors, $19 ages 17 and younger. Order at www.playersguildtheatre.com or call 330.453.7617
PHOTO by Don Jones: (left to right) Brandon Talbert, Micah Harvey, Craig Joseph