Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shrek The Musical (DreamWorks Theatricals, 2008)

Well well well. In the words of Staind, it’s been a while. See, I got all enthusiastic that my newly stable job would allow me the sort of schedule that would allow for more regular writing, but I forgot one thing: How FREAKING exhausting it is to be a teacher at the end of the year. Or a full time teacher in general, really. And I had to keep the ol’ bookstore job in order to have it over the summer, so the end result was if I wasn’t working, I was flat on my back. So if you’ve been wondering where the updates at, I wish it was a more exciting story, but nope. I was working my dream job by day, working a job I also love at night, and sleepin’ in the middle.

Thing is, school’s been out for weeks, and I haven’t picked up the pen yet. Metaphorically. Typing with a pen is difficult. But even if it wasn’t, I still just keep running into a wall when trying to put together my thoughts on The Land Before Time. And as the days ticked by, my mind wandered back to the weeks of the NJASK. Because the NJASK, you see, is part of what led me on this dark path I’ve found myself on. No, not the path of the writer’s block. The path of I've watched Shrek The Musical five times this summer. See? I told you it was dark.






The NJASK, for those that don’t know, is a standardized test taken from grades 3-8 in New Jersey. And schools take it REALLY seriously. High security, all sorts of new rules and regulations, and a mad orgy of test prep. The weeks leading up to the test are non-stop writing prompts and comprehension quizzes. And the kids have to be quiet. If anyone in the school is testing, the students must be absolutely silent for the duration of the testing, lest they provide a distraction to the testing students.

And the final part of our puzzle is that some students need to be taken from their classes and tested in small groups, in order to accommodate their learning needs. And what are the first classes to give up their rooms? The specials, of course. So the art, music, and Spanish classes were held in the gym, the gym classes lost their room, and the library classes had squat to do without their library. My school includes grades 4-8, so there is a LOT of testing to be done, and after a while, the specials teachers were getting kind of fed up.

This is a photo of Shrek, from the play "Shrek The Musical". So... there.

On the last day of 4th grade testing, I dropped my testing materials off at the vice principal’s office, and went off to the teacher’s room to grab a quick bathroom break before rejoining my very antsy and edgy kids. As it happens, the teacher’s room is right across from the gym, and it was 6th grade specials time. I saw that the gym was dark and peeked in the window to see what was going on. Oh, they’re just watching a movie. Well, I certainly don’t blame them. Great way to cap off a very stressful week. They’ve earned it, students and teachers alike. I poked my head in to see what movie they had, as I am always inordinately interested in what movies people are watching. And the result was... live action Shrek?

As a Broadway fan, I was of course aware that Shrek had been made into a stage musical, but I had no idea it had been professionally filmed and released. Intrigued, I poked about on the Netflix when I got home that afternoon, and there it was. So I watched it. Why not? Shrek was a good movie, there was a talented cast there, and I do like a good musical. So I watched it.

Fast forward to last week, and it popped up on my “Watch it again” recommendations on Netflix. Huh, I thought, I didn’t rate the movie after I finished it. That’s odd, I usually do that as soon as I finish. And after all, it was... Um... I thought it... I liked the...

I did not remember it at all. I remembered not a single moment of this movie which I had watched just a little over a month ago. I strained my brain but could not recall a single chorus, a unique costume design, an interesting bit of staging. Sure, it was a stressful time when I watched it, but surely something. I did remember one thing. I didn’t like it that much.

Was it garish? I feel like it was garish.

Intrigued by my lack of any memory other than a vague distaste, I did what any sensible man would do. I watched it again. And as the credits started rolling, I realized something very strange. I couldn’t remember the beginning of the show. It was slipping from my mind as soon as it entered. Sure, I had dribs and drabs this time, it being so recent, but it was fading fast.

Could this be the Perfectly Forgettable Entertainment? I’d encountered such things before, albeit rarely. The first Garfield movie, for instance, which I saw in theaters. Any number of NBC sitcoms designed to fill the gap between Friends and Seinfeld. A unit of entertainment that can be consumed and then immediately forgotten entirely, leaving no impact but the sense of its existence.

So I watched it again. And again. It’s been three days since my last viewing of it, and already it’s slipping away yet again. Will I watch it a fifth time, to see if I can vanquish its lethian powers? Probably not. It’s not that good.

A main problem is that it’s just trying to put the movie on stage, and that doesn’t work in the best of circumstances, much less with a movie like Shrek, which has dragons and explosions and crap. The scenes are awkwardly structured and don’t fit together right, the dialogue is often stilted and poorly timed, and the musical numbers rarely fit in organically. The famous “Gingerbread Man interrogation scene” was terrible, as it was missing the closeups and timing of the movie, but the dialogue was kept identical. The movie as a whole was full of that.

They try to match it exactly in terms of the costumes, too, and while they certainly look right, it leaves the whole thing looking like a theme park stage show than a proper musical. The original designs are busy and ugly, too, which is a problem, but Shrek was always a fairly dull and ugly series, anyway, with the strength of its writing as the main appeal. The dragon is particularly bad in this respect, as they attempt to copy a look that was really designed just for a CGI movie, and for a non-verbal, constantly moving character, who by the nature of the medium has to now stand still and speak terrible new dialogue. The puppetry is really bad, too, which is odd, as it was performed by Avenue Q’s John Tartaglia, and that guy knows his stuff.

I mean, at the very least, its eyes should be able to look at things. I feel like that's not too much to ask.

Tartaglia also appears as Pinocchio, in a role somewhat beefed up from the movie, and he does better there. He makes an impression, at least, which is more than I can say for most of the supporting cast. The leads... Well, there’s good and bad. Princess Fiona is the amazingly talented Sutton Foster, who may be skilled and beautiful, but Fiona’s a fairly dull part to begin with, and she’s not given much. Compared to what she is capable of, they really don’t challenge her abilities at all.

On the flip side is Christopher Seiber as Lord Farquaad. Seiber is a very tall fella. When I saw Spamalot, he ran past me in the aisle as part of a bit, and I, in the standing room section, thought, “Whoa. That dude’s tall.” True story. So how do they have him as the famously diminutive Farquaad? Simple. He wears a black lined cape and black pants with tiny legs sewn on, and spends the whole show on his knees. This must have been exceptionally difficult for him, and amazingly, he never gives it less than his all. He’s so committed and sells his material so well that his presence on stage is always a welcome break in the tedium, at least. Here’s a video of his big number, one of the only parts of the show I enjoyed wholeheartedly. Clever, funny, creative use of legs, Wicked parody, it’s got it all.

Shrek is played by Brian d’Arcy James, and frankly, he’s so good, his performance is terrible. He’s too earnest and talented to give the role the kind of delivery it needs, and his face is buried under a movie-mimicking pile of latex that robs him of all but the broadest emotion. His attempt at mimicking Mike Myers’ Scottish accent is weird at best, and frequently runs to nasal. And his Shrek head has really obvious earholes. All the same can be said of Daniel Breaker as Donkey, but far worse. While Mike Myers is a talented performer, Eddie Murphy is a revelation, and while the best years of both are long behind them, they can sell their lines like no one’s business. Breaker has no opportunity to make the character his own because he’s forced to do an Eddie Murphy impression, and that’s not a thing you can just copy. So he’s just freaking annoying, and not charming, funny annoying like he’s meant to be. It’s a fine line to walk. and only an Eddie Murphy can walk it. (Man, I just realized how much I’d hate Mushu if anyone else had voiced him). On top of that, the costume people seem to have just given up on his costume, leaving it, well...

"I'M AN ABOMINATION. And I'm comin' to your house after school..."

I mean, honestly, what is that? He can’t use those hooves for anything, and his body language is all awkward through the entire movie. And they didn’t even bother connecting the head to the body. Ugh. He looks like a broke furry.

The music is... well, I didn’t hate most of the songs as I was watching it. There are a few that provoked eye rolls, and Pinocchio and the Gingerbread Man shouldn’t be given solos with those voices, but in general they were decent. I even remember the occasional chorus. Or at least the key lines from them. But, ever a flaw with some musicals, a lot of them are inserted awkwardly at best. It’s another side effect of trying to copy the original film; the original film wasn’t a musical, and therefore, there’s no place for songs in it. Worse is that one of the film’s best aspects was its well-chosen soundtrack, with the scenes well-complimented by the pop songs playing in the background. Of these, only the Neil Diamond/Monkees/Smash Mouth classic “I’m a Believer” makes the cut, sang as a grand finale. But for the most of the play, you’ve got scenes written to include certain songs in the background, those songs removed, and new songs tacked on to the end where they don’t fit.

Really, it's impressive how old this joke doesn't get.

Now’s the part where I surprise some of you. It’s worth a watch. Seiber and Foster give the production a lot of life, and for all its blandness and poor adaptation, there are quite a few individual moments that provoke a smile. Kids will almost certainly like it, and I don’t begrudge them that. Particularly if they’ve seen the proper movie, which, again, I quite enjoy. More importantly I strongly believe that every Broadway show should have a performance recorded for posterity, and the more people see this, the more other producers will think about it. And that’s a message worth putting up with two hours of mediocre entertainment to send.

All right, let’s get back on some sort of schedule. Stay tuned for The Land Before Time.


* A bit more visual imagination could go a long way to making me enjoy this more, I think. In the course of my photo search, I found pictures from some productions that were a little more free with the costumes, and I found them quite intriguing. Here’s one inspired by William Steig’s original illustrations, and this one works a bit with textures and presentational costumes for a more appealing look.

* If you happened to read something interesting in the URL on that second link, yes, that Donkey is played by James Earl Jones II, no, he’s not related to James Earl Jones, no, I have no idea why he doesn’t change his name.

The show does contain Sutton Foster's legs, so it can't be all bad.

* Jen Cody (who is, incidentally, Sutton Foster's sister in law) has a bit role as a featured dancer in the "Welcome to Duloc" segment, in which she dances with Farquaad, and she is about as tall standing as he is kneeling. What a tiny, tiny actor. * I'm going to make one of my rare breaks from the blog's "no cussing" policy to say: Have you ever noticed that "Farquaad" sounds like "Fuckwad"? I mean, that has to be intentional, right? With Shrek's accent and all? They were just trying to say "Fuckwad" in a kids' movie, right?

* For what it’s worth, I’ve also watched Speed Racer five times so far this summer. But that’s different. That movie is awesome.
Someday. Someday.

1 comment:

  1. This one is another time where I read nervously, because I actually adore this musical purely for the Act 1 finale "Who I'd Be" and the way it destroys my heart every single time, but like usual I am pleasantly surprised in reading your review. I love the way you are able to be critical of a movie/show without being insulting to those who do enjoy it, and you always make thought provoking points.