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4th August 2023

Review: Shrek The Musical

The redesigned Shrek UK tour is a monster hit! From extravagant and delicate costumes to energised performances, this theatrical journey is worth a watch.
Review: Shrek The Musical
Brandon Lee Sears, Anthony Lawrence and Joanne Clifton. Photo: William Maidwell

Shrek the Musical has just embarked on its third UK tour, with a completely new production, and Manchester has been visited second (second the best, right?). We were so excited about the show that we sent not one but two writers to review it!

“Every performer was superb in bringing their own energy and interpretations into their characters” – Katie Bray

The timeless and well-beloved animated classic about everyone’s favourite Scottish ogre and donkey duo has finally made its way in musical form to Manchester Opera House on the first leg in its UK and Ireland tour.

Shrek boasts a phenomenal star-studded cast, featuring Antony Lawrence (The Lion King, We Will Rock You) as Shrek and Brandon Lee Sears (Dreamgirls, Motown) as Donkey, as they venture to save Princess Fiona (played by Strictly’s Joanne Clifton, who I interviewed during rehearsals) and re-acquire Shrek’s swamp from the cruel-minded Lord Farquaad (Olivier nominee James Gillian), who divides the kingdom between fairy-tale “freaks” and average loyal citizens.

Shrek the Musical draws different elements from the history of Shrek, some from William Steig’s book ‘Shrek!’ (1990), and mainly from the Shrek movie franchise (2001-2010), and the original Broadway show that started in 2008 before the show we see before us today.

After a dreamy fairy-tale book opening introducing us to a firefly-covered swamp-land and a naïve young ogre cast out into a ‘Big Bright Beautiful World’ prejudiced against his ominous growls and appearance- as reiterated by the comedic yet tragic removal of Shrek from the equation of fairy-tale endings and happily ever afters (the theme at the heart of Shrek). After a while, the audience were introduced to our older and grumpier Shrek before he meets Donkey on his travels.

Here the costumes really shone, with Shrek having a seamless ogre-like face, prosthetic stubby nose, rounded pot belly and broad green arms, while Donkey had simple donkey ears, a pointed tail and a grey, hoofed suit accentuated by  Searsbody language and occasional movements on all-fours. Fiona’s transformations were later aided by green lights, face paints and prosthetics. Unlike previous iterations of the musical, Lord Farquaad was not overly caricatured as small, with the actor able to move freely around the stage but still be subjected to other ‘shorts’ of jokes. Speaking of which, the show boasted a large variety of old jokes from the movie, and new jokes and puns most frequently fitted into songs, references to movies, nursery rhymes or other musicals (i.e. Wicked), and aided by props and comedic acting.

By far the most interesting costume was the dragon played by Cherece Richards. Her costume consisted of sparkly pinks in an armour-like arrangement with spikes along her arms and spine, a tail and a headdress that matches a giant dragon puppeted alongside her movements, not unlike Gingy. Whilst having the dragon present in two forms was a little jarring as they distracted from each other, both pieces were beautifully crafted and had a dominant presence on the stage of dancing prisoners and smoking lava.

Every performer was superb in bringing their own energy and interpretations into their characters, with Shrek maintaining the grumpy and rough exterior yet allowing for his more emotive side to shine through, the whiny Italian Pinocchio, Donkey- as comedic and straight-talking as ever, and a variety of outstanding songs and jazzy dance sequences. One of my favourite songs of the evening had to be the Dragon’s serenade to Donkey for the flawless and effortless delivery from Richards, alongside other brilliant numbers performed by the main three and encore.

After a dramatic finale in which Shrek, Donkey, Fiona, and the fairy-tale creatures find their happily ever afters, the audience was invited to dance, clap and sing to ‘I’m A Believer’ like in the original movie. This was such a fun, light-hearted and energetic way to finish off the show and had the whole audience- some dressed as characters, some sporting green, some dressed in normal attire- on their feet before the final bows.

The show promises a night of laughs, entertaining dancing and phenomenal singing, and fairy-tale and Broadway-themed references sure to impress the eagle-eyed viewer.

“The creatives abandoned one problematic portrayal in favour of another” – Jay Darcy

First a picture book then an animated film and now a stage musical, Shrek has gone on quite the journey. With an ogre falling in love with a Princess (who in the book is a human woman even uglier than he is and in the film turns into an ogress at night), the story challenges the soppy, misogynistic fairy tale narratives that we are used to. Whilst many modern adaptations of fairy tales have been progressive reimaginings, Shrek satirises and deconstructs over-told folklore, telling a story that reflects modern society and addresses contemporary issues.

Adapting such a popular and iconic film to the stage is a no-brainer, at least financially, but it’s also risky because there’s little chance of it living up to the original – and what was fresh two decades ago might now feel stale.

Yet, the creatives behind this redesigned production have succeeded in creating something truly magical. The story is faithful to the film, with a few noticeable changes which are pleasantly surprising. There are even some elements of the sequels, including a digital appearance from Puss in Boots, who does his iconic dance. There’s even an appearance from the franchise’s most popular villain, the Fairy Godmother, though her character is entirely reimagined. But this change is disappointing; they would have been better off leaving her out.

Mike Myers left Anthony Lawrence with huge shoes to fill but Lawrence not only fills them; he completely embodies Shrek. He honours Myers’ acclaimed portrayal whilst offering his own interpretation, resulting in a portrayal that is both nostalgic and fresh. Strictly professional turned musical theatre star Joann Clifton is badass as Princess Fiona, possibly even funnier than Cameron Diaz. Theatre mainstay Brandon Lee Sears (Donkey) is inspired by Eddie Murphy, especially with his African-American pizzazz, but takes ownership over the character; he rides that donkey solo!

Lord Farquaad has been reimagined because portraying him as an angry little man is not so tasteful in current times. Instead, he’s a flamboyant man of average stature. Whilst Oliver nominee James Gillan thrives in this camp, comedic role, the characterisation was very much a hyper-gay stereotype. The creatives abandoned one problematic portrayal in favour of another.

Cherece Richards, who made her professional debut in Regent’s Park’s recent revival of Once on This Island, rounds off the main cast as the dazzling Dragon. The Dragon’s physical appearance is different to that of previous productions, with Richards dressed as the dragon, in a gleaming leotard, whilst puppeteers navigate a huge dragon above her. It could be a little distracting; I wasn’t always sure where to look – but it looked amazing.

The stage design is gorgeous. The entire action is located inside two arches, which transports the audience to a Kingdom far, far away. The costumes are impressive; the creatives succeed in bringing beloved animated characters to life – even slimy lime-green ogres!

The songs are good. I especially enjoyed the nods to iconic musical songs, such as ‘Rose’s Turn’ from Gypsy, ‘And I Am Telling You’ from Dreamgirls, and the encore contains elements of ‘Shout’, which appears in the end-credits of Sister Act. The encore performance is ‘I’m A Believer’, which of course appeared in the film. The central trio had performed this number at Big Night of Musicals; it was great to see the real thing.

There are a lot of big, jazzy members – perhaps too many. More showgirls?! I thought to myself. This production throws everything but the kitchen sink, much like the films that came before it.

This is a show for everyone between the ages of two and 502. It was a real joy watching perhaps the defining film of my generation come to life before me; I felt like the Wicked Witch had turned me into a child!

Shrek the Musical runs at Opera House Manchester until August 12 2023 and tours the UK until April 21 2024. Book your ticket before it heads to a land far, far away!

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