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Shrek: Poster from Orpheus Musical theatre

Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire.Music by Jeanine Tesori.  Based on the Dreamworks animation motion picture and the book by William Steig. Orpheus Musical Theatre Society,  directed by Jenn Donnelly.

Shrek: The Musical will never win a place in the annals of great Broadway shows, but the production it receives from Orpheus is nevertheless an ongoing delight.

Forget the fact that the prime reason for its arrival on the Great White Way was somewhat cynical and opportunistic —  to capitalize further on the enormous success of the Dreamworks animated movie about a misanthropic swamp-dwelling ogre named Shrek and his rescue of a princess from a tower. Ignore, if you can, the readiness of the stage adaptation to remain faithful to a marketing dictum pursued by the filmmakers — that young audiences find flatulence funny. Accept the reality that Jeanine Tesori’s score can be pretty underwhelming.

The negatives don’t seem to matter when you get as spirited and imaginative a treatment as the one served up by director Jenn Donnelly and her colleagues.

Orpheus’s latest offering, which deservedly received a tumultuous reception from its opening-night audience at Centrepointe Theatre, shows a polish and professionalism sometimes lacking in the high-priced commercial items that roll into the NAC. It is consistently entertaining, frequently hilarious, and looks smashing. The sets designed by Jenn Donnelly and Tony Walker may at times be economical in concept, but they — along with the costumes of Sandy Goldsmith — serve the show’s zany sensibility beautifully. But the show’s creative team outdoes itself when it comes to the immense Dragon whose cockeyed intrusions present Shrek and his allies with fresh challenges while launching the audience on unexpected transports of delight. In brief, the work that has gone into the creation of this creature, coupled with the contribution of the puppeteers working it, is an entry for the memory books.

Furthermore, there is a collective effort to make the melodically forgettable songs work. David Lindsay-Abaire’s lyrics, witty and character-driven,  supply the real ballast, and performers respond to their potential splendidly with the solid backing of the orchestra under the baton of musical director Gabriel Leury. Throw in the consistently inventive staging of the musical numbers and you have a textbook example of how sometimes problematic material can be salvaged by strong production values.

In his portrayal of the green-hued, pot-bellied Shrek, Justin Hills understands that this character is a staple of popular entertainment — one of those doleful, fumbling heroes who’s not particularly beautiful, whose roar is worse than his bite (after all, he must preserve the sanctity of the swamp in which he makes his home and frighten away intruders) but who needs us to root for him because the time will come when he does do something brave — like saving a princess and thwarting a dragon. Hills, who also handles the songs adroitly, offers a portrait of lovable vulnerability.

But we also have Shrek’s talkative pal Donkey, with Damien Broomes effortlessly holding the audience in his grasp with his wise-cracking charm and making the most of a book that bristles with cheeky reference points to other Broadway musicals. He’s the Sancho Panza to Shrek’s improbable Don Quixote and he’s marvellous in word, music and rollicking body language. Vivian Melsness is a beguiling, sharp-witted Princess Fiona — and just wait until she joins a chorus line of top-hatted rats for the high-spirited tap number that is but one example of choreographer Mary Hills’s superb contribution to the evening.

Another acting triumph is the ever-inventive Rejean Dinelle-Mayer’s towering contribution to minimalist acting in the role of the comically-villainous Lord Farquaad, the pipsqueak nobleman with designs on the fair princess.

Numerous fairy-tale characters also invade this world in performances offering further evidence of Orpheus’s outstanding ensemble quality. In brief, a sweet-natured but sometimes tricky show gets Cadillac treatment.

Shrek The Musical continues at Centrepointe to November 26.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman.

Director: Jenn Donnelly

Musical director: Gabriel Leury

Choreographer: Mary Hills

Set: Jenn Donnelly and Tony Walker

Sound: John Cybanski

Lighting: Amber Hood

Costumes: Sandy Goldsmith

 

Cast:

Shrek                                      Justin Hills

Donkey                                    Damien Broomes

Princess Fiona                          Vivian Burns Melsness

Lord Farquaad                          Réjean Dinelle-Mayer

Pinocchio                                    Jamie Rice

Gingy/Sugarplum Fairy             Meagan Chapin

Dragon/Bo Peep                          Jerusha Lewis

Young Shrek/Knave of Hearts     Alison Cachero

Young Fiona/Wee Willie Winkie      Michelle Sangalli

Teen Fiona/Ugly Duckling       Brietta Howard

Mama Ogre/Mother Goose        Donna St. Jean

Papa Ogre/Straw            Paul Melsness

Sticks                         Jared Langdon

Bricks                           Rick Burk

Papa Bear                      Jim Tanner

Mama Bear                  Kelly Fuoco

Baby Bear                    Vanessa Monteiro

Guard Captain             Marcus Winchester

Big Bad Wolf/Bishop   John Leclaire

Shoemaker’s Elf        Tanya Guimond

Fairy Godmother      Laura Burk

Wicked Witch                Roxane Delisle

Pied Pipe                       Bebe Brunjes

Mad Hatter                  Morgan Coughlan

Peter Pan                     Bennett Langdon

John Darling                  Hailey Quiquero

Tin Soldier                      Luc Cormier

Marionette                    Mélanie Evans

Rat Dancer                    Courtney Dinelle-Mayer

 

Orchestra

Conductor                                                              Gabriel Leury

Bass………………………………………………………………Tom Mcmahon

Cello……………………………………………………………..Steve Smith

Drums…………………………………………………………….Pierre Huneault

Guitars                                                          Pierre Forêt, Pierre Monfils

Horn………………………………………………………………Keith Estabrooks

Keyboards                             Steve Pankiewicz, Cheryl Jarvis-Woods

Percussion………………………..Brydone Charlton

Reed                                                  Brian Boggs, Matt Dawber

Trombone                                      Chris Thiessen

Trumpet                                        Kazimier Samujlo

Violins                                             Sophia Pan, Galina Rezaipour