What makes you special makes you strong. This inspirational mantra, a celebration of self-empowerment and individuality, is the feel-good foundation of Playhouse South’s absolutely delightful production of composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/librettist David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2008 tunefest “Shrek The Musical,” based on the 2001 Academy Award-winning film and 1990 novel.
Being labeled a freak can be cringe-inducing or hurtful, but in this context it’s something to take extreme pride in. After all, swamp ogre Shrek could care less about what people think about him. His primary aim is to protect his humble surroundings, which have been overrun by a bevy of fairy tale characters ousted from their habitats by Lord Farquuad’s startling decree. In order to save his home, Shrek agrees to rescue the lovely, abandoned Princess Fiona and return her to the villainous, diminutive Farquuad, who plans to marry her and rightfully become king of Duloc. But along the way, and with a wisecracking Donkey in tow, Shrek and Fiona grow to a newfound appreciation of love’s fundamental ability to look beyond outwardly appearances and treasure the glories of inner beauty.
Director Becki Norgaard, spearheading an entertaining, over 50-member cast, astutely embraces the conceptual challenges within the fanciful yet imbalanced material, particularly hindered by a few frivolous, forced gags from Lindsay-Abaire. Instead of overpowering the stage with elaborate scenery, Norgaard opts for slightly scaled-down sets (efficiently designed by Jim Brown) properly establishing tone while stirring the imagination. Norgaard retains a few elements of the Broadway and national touring productions, but her vision, accented by Annette Looper’s lively choreography, is refreshing overall, especially in such playful numbers as “Travel Song” and “Morning Person.” She also scores points for reimagining the role of the Dragon by placing a clear emphasis on its large, intimidating wings.
Zach King delivers one of his finest, most endearing performances as the titular green outcast. King skillfully conveys the menace, charm, frustration, and vulnerability fashioning Shrek’s amiable journey, heightened by his defiant, powerful rendition of “Build a Wall.” The equally radiant Esther Hyland, perfectly compatible with King, marvelously inhabits the multifaceted Fiona who harbors a secret in her quest for true love. Rising to levels of role originator Sutton Foster, Hyland’s sharp, mature instincts humorously drive “I Know It’s Today” (nicely shared with Cate Shannon and Stephanie Penrod) and heightens her character’s appealing emotional arc as Fiona warms to Shrek’s prickly nature. Strong vocalist Tia Seay, a recent standout in Dare to Defy Productions’ concert version of “Hair,” hilariously and energetically fits the bill as the loudmouth Donkey, quickly bonding and molding an enjoyable rapport with King and Hyland. The aforementioned Brown brings vengeful glee and apt physicality to his wonderfully heartless portrayal of Farquuad. The dynamic Parisa Samavati nearly steals the show belting the soul-flavored, encore-worthy “Forever” as the domineering Dragon smitten with Donkey. Brent Hoggatt (Pinocchio), Mackensie Vonderbrink (Gingy/Rag Doll), Aaron Eechaute-Lopez (Big Bad Wolf), Mary Nunnery (Ugly Duckling), Donna Cason (Wicked Witch), Janelle Chamness (Fairy Godmother), Angie Thacker (Mama Bear), Lisa Glover (Humpty Dumpty), and Aaron Brewer (Mad Hatter) are among the colorfully cheery array of fairy tale cohorts storming the stage to deliver knockout versions of “Story of My Life” and “Freak Flag.”
Additionally, the production is vibrantly and eye-catchingly costumed to the hilt by Meagan Kuchan and her impressive team (Melissa Fogle, Kathleen Carroll, the aforementioned Cason and Nunnery, Summer Lehman, Rachel Annabo Smith, Maggie Carroll, Aurora Nunnery, Rachel LaFountain Earich, Jordan Norgaard, Jenni Cypher, Tonia Scearce, Ian Meadows, and Jess Evans). Music director Lorri Topping and conductor Jason W. Clark expertly handle the melodic, introspective score.
In the final minutes of this truly enjoyable showcase comprised of varying ages and backgrounds, I couldn’t help but think of just how magnetic and inclusive community theater can be. It really is a big bright beautiful world always open to accept and embrace the freak within us all.
“Shrek The Musical” continues through May 17 inside the Clark Haines Theatre (Kettering Board of Education Building) 3750 Far Hills Ave., Kettering. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and military, and $8 for students. For tickets or more information, call 1-888-262-3792 or visit www.playhousesouth.org