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Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Shrek” Big, Bright and Wonderfully Demented
‘SHREK The Musical’
When: ThroughSept. 1
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Info:(312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.org
Run time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell’s Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of “Shrek The Musical” is so good — so packed with A-list talent, visual delights and hip wit, and so expertly trimmed to 75 minutes of perfectly propelled storytelling — that adults who initially arrive with kids in tow for this “family entertainment” might well be tempted to return for a second time by themselves.
Of course, as Stephen Sondheim noted when he spoke at the theater’s recent benefit, children and art are of the essence in this world. And the best way to introduce kids to the theater is to expose them to a production that is both sophisticated and just plain fun, and then just watch what does (or does not) capture their fancy.
“Shrek,” with its exuberant (and challenging) score by Jeanine Tesori (music), and the knife-sharp David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics), is a clever pastiche of blues and soul numbers, ballads, a tango and quasi-Brechtian patter songs. (The opener, “Big, Bright Beautiful World,” is sung to a tiny tot being kicked out of the house by his parents.) It also has a high level of fairy tale dysfunction in its DNA, a good measure of “Spamalot” in its sight-gag humor, and a foolproof message of universal acceptance to counter rejection and self-pity.
More crucially, Rockwell, who invariably opts for goofy show biz joy and invention over sanctimonious message-sending, gets the tone exactly right, and find a winning mix of intimacy and spectacle. (And note: Tickets to this “Shrek” are about a fifth the price of those you would have found on Broadway.)
The cast that spins this tale of Shrek — the hermitlike ogre who lives by a swamp, and has had to fend for himself since childhood — is divine, and packed with power voices and great comic chops.
Michael Lindner has the ideal body mass for Shrek, but he also possesses the big, warm voice, edgy impatience, sad resignation and hidden sweetness so essential to this character. Summer Naomi Smart is a stunner — an ideally sardonic princess with dazzling vocal range (she can shift in a flash from coloratura to honky-tonk). She also moves like a dream, and shrewdly nails every punchline.
James Earl Jones II brings great comic attitude and vocal zest (including a brief homage to Isaac Hayes) to Donkey, the character hellbent on befriending Shrek. Alexis J. Rogers (so brilliant as Billy Holiday recently), is a terrific Dragon. As the height-challenged Lord Farquaad, [CQ] Travis Taylor tap dances better on his knees than most do on their feet. Matthew Uzarraga (Baby Shrek) is a tiny, highly skilled force of nature you just can’t keep your eyes off. And the rest of the large ensemble is on the same exceptional level.
Music director Michael Mahler clearly has brought his rock-meets-Broadway ear to the proceedings, as does the live band (Tom Vendefreddo, Sean McNeely, Matt Deitchman, Ethan Deppe). Rockwell’s dance sequences invariably are a highlight. And her fine design team (Scott Davis, Theresa Hamm, Jesse Klug) has its high-gloss work injected with just the right amount of hi-tech projections (Mike Tutaj) and special effects (James Savage).
Big, bright, beautiful and just demented enough to be irresistible.