The other night I and my wife, the Beautiful and Talented Lynne, sat down to dinner and, as is our wont (who actually says that these days? Oh, that’s right, me…) we took our trays into the living room and turned on the telly. For some reason I was in the mood for a musical—an art form the U.S. invented and has, more or less, perfected. Looking at the old video shelf, I’m seeing things like The Beatles’ Help, which I can practically quote line and verse; and The Music Man, which has some good music and lyrics, but is really a second-rate musical. Wait… what’s this over next to Shrek 3D (I’m not a giant fan of anaglyphic 3D; thank Ghu for polarized lenses!)? Shrek the Musical? You’ve got to be kidding! Lynne and I looked at each other with “are you kidding me?” faces, then we shrugged and put it on. I really, really wasn’t expecting a lot from this, but I had found the Dreamworks animated Mike Myers movies pretty amusing, even the spinoffs, like Puss in Boots. So wotthehell, and toujours gai, as Mehitabel used to say. (If you’re not familiar with Don Marquis’ Archy & Mehitabel, you should find a copy ASAP!)
So, not expecting much, we put it on. Now, as a confirmed fan of musical theatre, I can sing songs from quite a number of B’way productions—although I must confess that for some of the older ones, like Camelot, I prefer the Broadway version (which I’ve never seen, only heard) to the filmed version. Richard Harris, though a fine actor, never quite grabbed me to the tune of “Camelot” like Richard Burton did. Marni Nixon didn’t match Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (I’ve even acted in a Civic Theatre production of the latter, playing the Rex Harrison role. The local paper found me “competent but uninspiring.” Oh, well, can’t please ‘em all. Though to give Marni her props, she was great as Natalie Wood’s voice in West Side Story. But I digress… again.) So you could say I was a devotee of the form.
Anyway, here’s a musical version of an animated feature, with no actors I’ve ever heard of playing roles made famous by Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow and, of course, Eddie Murphy. I’m not going to be overconcerned with spoilers today because I’m going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that most if not all of you have seen one or more of the animated Shreks, and that you’re familiar with the story. But here’s a capsule summary anyway. Shrek (Brian d’Arcy James), an ogre—think big, green, and not terribly attractive—is sent away by his parents at the age of 7 to find his own way in the world; they tell him there’s a “big, bright, beautiful world” out there (Figure 3), but not for him. He finds a swamp of his own, where he can live alone without all those people with their torches and pitchforks and be as happy as an ogre can be. At the same time, Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) (Figure 4) is taken away by her parents to be locked away in a tower until rescue by her “own true love” should happen.
And in the nearby (to Shrek’s swamp) king-less kingdom of Dulac, the ruler, Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber), is compensating for his lack of height—he’s very short—by waging war against the fairy-tale creatures living in Dulac. (Props to Sieber for doing the whole show on his knees!) He considers them freaks and trouble-makers, and drives them out of Dulac to live in Shrek’s swamp, which irritates Shrek no end. It’s his swamp, after all, and ogres like to be alone!
At this point, Shrek meets Donkey (originally portrayed on film by Eddie Murphy. How would you like to be the person trying to take over a role from Eddie M? Tough gig!) Donkey is played extremely well by Daniel Breaker. Another character who appears in the play but not really in this summary is Pinocchio, played by John Tartaglia.
Shrek decides to go to Dulac and confront Lord Farquaad and get these people out of his swamp. Farquaad decides Shrek is big and mean enough to rescue Princess Fiona for him, so he (Farquaad) can marry her and become a king (his lifelong ambition). He promises Shrek the deed to the swamp in exchange for this service. Shrek and Donkey head off to wherever the dragon is holding Fiona prisoner. Meanwhile, Fiona is positive that this will be the day her prince will come (as she has been positive every single day of her captivity—about 20 years); and after Shrek and Donkey evade the dragon, Shrek climbs up Fiona’s tower and finds her waiting for True Love’s first kiss (Figure 7).
Fiona makes Shrek take off his helmet, and reveal himself as an ogre, not her “knight in shining armour” or her True Love. But he assures her he is only Lord Farquaad’s agent, and he will be The One for her. So Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey head off back to Dulac. On the way, as sunset falls, Fiona makes an excuse to hide from the other two in a cave. Somewhere in here we hear about her curse, which says she’ll be a person during the day, an ogre at night, but only True Love’s First Kiss will make her into her beautiful permanent form. On the way back to Dulac, an attraction blossoms between Shrek and Fiona (the song “I Think I Got You Beat,” about their respective horrid childhoods and upbringings, accompanied by various body noises—farts and so on—is one of the highlight songs of the musical).
Meanwhile, with all the fairy-tale creatures banished—after Shrek threw them out of “his” swamp, they ended up living in a landfill—Farquaad is revelling in the idea of a “freak-free” kingdom with him as actual king after he marries the princess (Figure 8).
In the swamp, before they headed to Dulac, Princess Fiona is telling Donkey—who has found out that she’s an ogre at night—about her problem, asserting that “nobody could love an ugly ogre,” while Shrek is out looking for a flower for her. Shrek overhears part of the conversation, and assumes she’s talking about him. A whole bunch of stuff happens when he takes Fiona to Dulac, including a rescue by Dragon, and Fiona and Shrek share True Love’s First Kiss (Figure 9), after which she transforms into her ogre form forever. “I thought I would be beautiful,” she says. “You are,” Shrek answers. The Dragon eats Farquaad, by the way. Everyone’s happy, Shrek marries Fiona, the fairytale people sing “I’m A Believer” just like in the animated version, and everyone’s singing and dancing.
So much for the summary; what about the musical? Well, I have to say that for a musical to impress me, it needs at least one memorable song, a good plot, and good acting or dancing (or both). And, naturally, good to great principal actors/singers/dancers. As far as the production, Shrek was absolutely stellar, in my opinion. The orchestra pit (swamp) was hidden by twisty branches, and the whole stage not only revolved, but had “wheels within wheels” in which portions of it could revolve independently and even become risers at need!
The storyline was, of course, very familiar; but to turn animation—in which literally anything can happen—into actual stagework takes extreme talent. The acting and singing were superb. I’d never heard of any of the four main actors named above, but each one of them was insanely talented. (A side note: Myers’ faux-Scots accent as used in the animated movies was a very transient thing here. But it was okay; I barely noticed.) The vocal ranges and power of the two main actors, James and Foster, were stunning. Foster displayed a command of comedy that reminded me of Carol Burnett, among others. The songs were fitting, but the only two that I found sort of memorable were “Fly Your Freak Flag” and the aforementioned “I Think I Got You Beat” in my opinion. I think, though the film of the production showed a lot of kids getting tickets, that this production was aimed mostly at adults. I’d give it a four-plus flibbet rating!¤¤¤¤+!
As SF/F fans, you’re probably also fans of the film Alien and its many sequels; and you’re also probably—more or less—fans of William Gibson, who wrote Neuromancer, among many other novels, and who’s coming out with a sequel to the 2014 book The Peripheral. Are you also aware that way back after the movie Aliens (1986), Gibson wrote a script for a proposed sequel called Alien 3, which was, for various reasons, never made. Those reasons included a) that Gibson wasn’t then a member of the Writers Guild; and b) that the Writers Guild went on strike. That script kicked around the interwebs for years—I saw at least two or three versions of it—and has now, finally, been turned into an illustrated book (Figure 11) by Dark Horse.
I attended a book launch a few weeks ago at the Vancouver Film School’s café‚ on Hastings Street, at which there was a Q&A which included both William Gibson and the book’s illustrator, Johnnie Christmas, where both answered at length any question the audience cared to ask about either the script, the illustration, or both. I managed to get my copy signed before the big rush came, and had a chance to talk very briefly to both author and illustrator. Amazon.ca has it for $25.99 as a hardcover (there’s no dustjacket; it’s what used to be called a “library binding.”); Figure 1 shows a scan of my copy. It’s also available for Kindle. Get yours today!
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