A Shrek For All Seasons

51f04d010ebb9.preview-620As I have mentioned in previous reviews, no one views the world in the way director Rachel Rockwell does.  Her pension for merging stylistic visionary technics with raw human emotion is a quality that makes her stand alone as far as the great musical theatre directors to emerge from Chicago in the last decade.    Ms. Rockwell proves her worth again with a 75 minute version of Shrek The Musical now running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Led by  two of my favorite Chicago performers, Michael Aaron Lindner (Shrek) and Summer Naomi Smart (Fiona),  Rockwell’s shortened version of the 2008 Brian D’arcy James and Sutton Foster vehicle (of course based on Dreamworks 2001 animated hit) is better paced and more cohesive then its full length counterpart.    The book of the musical by David Lindsay-Abaire mirrors that of the now animated classic where Ogre Shrek goes to rescue Princess Fiona, who is held captive in a tower, and deliver her to the short in stature Price Farquaad, who holds the deed to Shrek’s swamp.  What unfolds is a story not unlike the X-Men, were those who are different are pushed to their limits and the what we view as normal is put to the test.   All this sustained morality is done with a brilliant comic undertone led by Jeanine Tesori’s catchy and melodic score.

CST_SHREK_02  Mr. Lindner (his Sweeney Todd is still one of the best), with all his verbosity and stature makes for a very vulnerable Ogre.  When paired with the hilarious James Earl Jones, III as his best companion, Donkey, the two have an instant chemistry that is reminiscent of some of the great comedy teams of old.   Add to that Ms. Smart’s instant like-ability and an alto belt to match any Broadway diva and you then have a threesome that is every bit as good, if not better then the originators of these roles.

It was at the press opening performance though, that Travis Taylor’s Lord Farquaad stole the show.  Done entirely on his knees to embody that of the vertically challenged, Mr. Taylor’s highly physical and demanding role was played ingeniously to grand results.

Ms. Rockwell’s impeccable casting is seen all though the ensemble, especially with the glorious vocal cord’s of Alexis J. Rogers, the high pitched Adam Fane’s Pinocchio and the always present Norm Boucher in a myriad of parts.   Michael Mahler’s musical direction is spot-on as always; while the design team of Scott Davis (sets), Jesse Klug (lights), Mike  Tutaj (projections) and Theresa Ham (costumes) together create a glorious visual retreat for the action to take place.

I would also like to give kudos for someone whose talents are not often recognized in musical reviews but proves his worth in every show he plays for, and that is percussionist Ethan Deppe.   Show after show in the Chicagoland area, Mr. Deppe brings unique rhythmic beats to otherwise basic arrangements, but never once overshadows  his fellow musicians or actors in sound or tone.  Travis-Taylor-as-Lord-Farquaad-in-Shrek-the-Musical-Chicago-Shakespeare-Theater

What separates Shrek The Musical from some of the other family friendly offerings this season is the connection Ms. Rockwell has via material to the audience.  Unlike Mary Zimmerman’s The Jungle Book which is visually stunning, there is no core connection between characters and viewers.   Shrek, through Rockwell does not make that mistake.  It is the via the character’s emotional core that we connect them.  We all need and want to fit into a society that at times can be very cruel.  Though the characters in Shrek, Ms. Rockwell carefully weaves the  need to belong into love story of truth we can relate to.  The ticket prices are also more than reasonable for a family outing.

Shrek The Musical is recommended for ages 5 and up and runs though September 1, 2013.Tickets are $18–$25 with special discounts available for groups of 10 or more. All patrons receive a 40% parking discount at Navy Pier garages. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or visit the Theater’s website at www.chicagoshakes.com/shrek.  For calendar information please visit www.TheatreInChicago.com