Kafkaesque? Did I hear “Kafkaesque”? I did, I did hear it … Daddy Ogre said it! SHREK: THE MUSICAL opens with a charming vignette about throwing a seven year old ogre out of the family home to make his own swampy way.
Couple of things going on here. Unrestrained enthusiasm from the younger audience for the characters they know and love and hilarious asides and jokes for the grown-ups. No wonder this audience, old and young, is so fired up. There is nothing better than live! It’s such a pleasure to plonk down in a nice seat at the Concourse surrounded by an excited audience and have the detail and performance excellence of Willoughby Theatre Company’s production squeeze all the love in the room. “Cue the happy people.”
As Fiona and Shrek, Nikole Music and Jeremy Curtin grab the audience’s attention immediately. It’s a very clever script in that way, no false mystery or waiting around for the main event. Music is commanding and feisty from the beginning and Curtin’s grumphs and humphs are precisely what we need to see.
Curtin brings his own to the character though. With the distance of the hermit never forgotten, he develops such subtly endowed relationships. When he drops the sunflower towards the end of the show, the empathy which he has engendered in the audience just flows and the communal intake of breath when he purposely insults Farquaad is just wonderful to be part of. It’s such a lovely moment. And he has the physicality, the catches and holds with donkey are corps de ballet precision, the huge voice, and a serious abundance of energy that gives his, often still, character power and presence.
And he is very well matched with Music’s Fiona. She is everything, just everything, you want in a modern princess. A joyous expression of a ‘difficult woman’ her work is layered and impressively nuanced despite its boldness. With a lovely soprano that is full voiced and spirited with killer long notes, she can also tap up a storm. The rapport she has with the audience is warm and embracing without being soppy which gave extra comic effect to the ‘pull my finger’ love scene. She has a genuine smile and a skilful way of throwing a double take when her secret ogre is cross. And a shout out to Georgia Taplin and Madison Russo as the younger and the teen Fiona … both of them artists to watch out for in the future.
As Donkey, Adam Haynes has harnessed (cough, cough) his inner jackass and let loose! His entry killed me and the adults around me and the kids and the grandparents … well you know what I mean! His movement is the source of so much fun and his bon mots and cynical interjections just keep the laughs coming with a real freshness and improv feel in the incredibly disciplined delivery. Same too with Mike Curtin’s Lord Farquaad who leaves no moue unpouted and no joke behind. He even manages an arrogant strut and the little boy next to me made my night when, as Curtin took his bow, he repeating under his breath “stand up, stand up”. Huge applause when he did. I laughed and laughed. Mind you, he’s got the napoleon thing down pat and can straighten a slouching soldier with an imperious look. An impressively replete performance.
Also having a fine time is Linda Hale as Dragon with a sweeping sashay and a cracker voice and some stylish puppetry behind her. Her “today” note is to die for. Add in a brave and conflicted Pinocchio from Mackinnley Bowden and an emotional and gutsy ‘sweetness’ (sorry, I had to!) in the interpretation of the Gingerbread from Alyce Levett. This ensemble has so much engagement and depth. They can mill and seethe and crowd the stage with individuation and personality plus.
The German pigs are uproarious bratwurst, there’s a touch of the panto dame in the wolf in grandma’s bedtime attire and a fluffy butt daddy bear having a great time, a homy ped shod Dumbledore and a bitchslap par excellence from Humpty. There’s a truly delightful moment of balletic skill when Peter Pan has a turn and it’s combined with stellar ensemble acting from the group and some sidesplitting Tweedle action up the back. And the skill is not just in the performance, their exits are militarily precise, it’s an extraordinary smoothness of stagecraft to get nearly 30 people completely off so swiftly and without pulling focus.
It’s just one of those elements Director Declan Moore has a strong control over. I can’t praise his direction enough here. He can keep Donkey and Farquaad in line while lifting the little stories out of the ensemble. And what backstage excellence! As a person who has spent their productive life in the dark, with a wardrobe at least ninety percent pit blacks, I can tell you that this is an extraordinary crew. While it might appear seamless to the watcher, the precision with which this crew manages the deck is delicious for someone like me. From the indirect recovery of an errant tossed martini glass to the maintenance of the wheels on the trucks and the fly-in of scenic elements such competence simply allows the on-stage members of Willoughby Theatre Company to get on with the job of entertaining the audience.
Same with the costumes. (Design: Audrey Currie and I expect a massive team of WTC members) They look easy to work in and are glorious to look at. Character setting and colourful, but there is more going on than just beauty. This is high order theatricality. The discrete consideration of mic packs, the knee pads built into the design and the thing that is always thrilling for me, the respect for body shape. The beauty is breathtaking though, the flapper costumes for the blind mice… oh still my beating heart!
Eye of the beholder professionalism also in the staging elements. The set design from Josh McIntosh and the sturdy build and paint from whole heap of others is not just superb rendering of place but accessibility and use aforethought. There’s even a painted floor cloth! And the detail is jaw dropping … look for the sunflower theme in the travel cloth behind the journey.
A big part of the visible distinction of this production is the choreography from Matt Hourigan and Amy Curtin as they channel the talented ensemble into exciting, but not rushed or overly flamboyant, dancing and movement. The design gives a dynamism to the big production numbers and a personality and flair to the leads. I especially loved the Duplo echoes in ‘What’s Up, Duloc?” in the intricacy of line movement, those side kicks and turns and floorwork . And the tap rats … omg!
Lighting-wise this production has a lovely choice of palette (Design: Sean Clarke). The locations all have a distinct feel and the followspot work, both in focus choice and operation is really terrific. Add in some very clever thinking about specifics like the moon colours and you have a modern design without any rock and roll brashness to detract from the performances.
Also working beautifully in concert with the acting is the fine orchestra under the baton of Alex Ash. Note perfect as we always expect from this company but with exhilarating orchestration. The way the double bass and cello were foregrounded for that depth of sound running counter to higher notes of ‘The Story of My Life’. The yearning blend of flute and strings in ‘I Know It’s Today’ and the rockin’ guitar of ‘Forever’. Plus, giving the Pied Piper a piccolo theme is inspired.
When these musicians rise up to full swell, such as for ‘Who I’d Be’ , the marvellous musicality sends you off to interval with goosebumps. But the voices are never overwhelmed in a pinpoint audio mix when I saw the show. The design from Eclipse Sound is moderated and modulated for best support to the superb voices. The use of reberb on Shrek’s mix in out of interval was very clever design. And listen out for the kid’s reaction to the swamp soundscape at interval.
Willoughby Theatre Company’s SHREK: THE MUSICAL is such a great night at the theatre for young and old. Grab a kid if there’s one available, cause that’s a pretty special experience, but go on your own too and listen out for grownup jokes about Stepford and the funny mushrooms down by the stream. Not to mention, the little references hidden inside the show for us music theatre tragics: there’s ‘Wicked’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Rent’ and ‘Lion King’ and and and ….