Fairy tales, and particularly fairy tale parodies, rely on an appeal to children while burying morals - and in the best cases, some more adult gags and themes - just under the surface. Getting the balance right is tricky and the production of Shrek the Musical from the Lower Ossington Theatre comes close but seems to have decided to appeal to the children before the satire. And the children, of which there were a lot, enjoyed it immensely.
In a post-Lion King theatrical world, for a small - but it must be noted extremely ambitious and clever - company like the Lower Ossington Theatre to tackle a production as elaborate as Shrek the Musical is nervy. That the production succeeds except for a few niggling details that almost undo it, is remarkable. The LED backdrop set is used very cleverly but scenery is still rolled out in almost-blackouts that interrupt the reality of the fairy tale world created. The costumes are likewise clever and very well done but a small loose flap on the back of Shrek's mask became a distraction. But the main problem is the sound system that renders some lyrics, and lots of jokey asides, almost inaudible. Joshua Clayton's fey but strutting Big Bad Wolf's "I'm a tranny mess" line (he is wearing grandmother's nightgown) is almost lost and renders his big finale reveal a confusing moment. It also makes the entire "Let your freak flag fly" theme into a more generic statement than an anthemic plea for equality, not only for fairy tale characters but for all minorities including the sexual and gender ones.
The cast is full of energy, enthusiasm and talent and their sheer exuberance almost paper over the few plot holes that the direction and set are unable to solve (what does happen to Lord Farquaad? How did they escape the castle? How do the fairy tale characters manage to storm the castle?). Andrew Di Rosa, previously at the LOT in Altar Boyz, as Shrek out-muscles the sound problems with a voice that soars and is as powerful as an ogre's should be. Even at the times when he is abandoned alone on stage to deliver a ballad into the darkness, the sheer gorgeousness of his voice holds the attention of even the restless children. Unfortunately Mark Willett, who has shone in Next to Normal and Avenue Q, is brutalized by the sound mix and his Donkey character never gets to shine or achieve the giddy heights that Willett is capable of. And the versatile voice of Michelle Nash as Princess Fiona is mixed to sound shrill negating the hilarity of the character's dual nature. And alas we only heard a few of the notes and words from April Clemmen's feisty Pinocchio and from Rent we know she is a formidable voice and talent. When the entire ensemble launches into "Let Your Freak Flag Fly" the sound system is pummelled into submission by sheer force of talent and the production launches into the stratosphere.
There are moments of sheer magic where the limitations of a small budget are creatively and brilliantly solved. The puppeteering talents of Shannon Dickens - learned during her stints in Avenue Q? - make the Dragon, voiced by the showstopping voice of Ann Paula Bautista, a moment that delights and thrills. And it is great to see Dickens out on stage without a puppet to charm as numerous other characters including a sexy Sugar Plum Fairy. And when the cast lets their freak flags fly, Shrek the Musical is exhilarating. And if even just a few of the children in attendance let Pinocchio's message of "I'm wood, I'm good, get used to it" sink in Shrek the Musical will not only have entertained but achieved it's wonderfully subversive purpose.
Shrek the Musical continues until Sat, Oct 19 at the Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst St. lowerossingtontheatre.com