“It’s not easy being green” is just as true for ogres as it is for frogs. The Wichita Theatre revived Shrek the Musical last weekend, two short years after its Texoma debut, with a fresh vision by director Lara Williams and some new faces on stage. The production hit some technical snags but the cast, full of energy throughout, persevered like the Little Engine That Could, bringing the audience a fun romp through a fairy tale turned on its ear and leaving them dancing in the aisles.
Zack Brasfield takes the reins as the title character and is an excellent choice for the role. Brasfield has a beautiful voice and his size is an imposing presence on stage, perfect for an ogre. He plays the character mindful of the fact that “ogres have layers”, giving the character both a gruffness needed to scare the minions of Duloc and the fairy tale creatures, but also a tenderness as his feelings toward Fiona grow. With such a clear and powerful voice, Brasfield could bring more emotion to “Who I’d Be” so that the audience feels more in touch with this outcast who only wants to be left alone. He shows that he can play the emotion in “When Words Fail”, a lovely ballad that shows the soft underside of this onion.
Sarah Jarvis brings her powerful voice to the role of Fiona, belting out songs with plenty of attitude thrown in. While her vocal abilities are in full display with lots of feeling and performance, when she drops into dialogue the emotion and volume drops off. Many of her lines come off as only a whisper, and without the microphone amplifying the dialogue she would not have been able to be heard. Jarvis needs to use the power she puts into her songs with her spoken lines, and not rely on the microphone.
Seigen Walker reprises his role of Donkey, and slides back into the fur with ease. He mixes the right blend of sassy, soulful, and silly that the role requires. Walker uses his body expertly, sticking a hip out here, throwing a hoof out there, creating a fully animated character that the audience soaked up. “Make a Move” highlighted Walker’s physicality and vocal talents quite well, coming off a mix of James Brown and Barry White.
Chris Jarvis also returns to the role from two years ago as Lord Farquaad. Jarvis plays the diminutive pseudo-king with over the top gusto, working the costumed legs to perfection. His vocal power is certainly there, but a little more variation on the delivery would have made the character more fully fleshed out. There was no subtlety to his performance, and he stayed at one tonal level throughout the show. Even with a character who is the antagonist of the story, there need moments where the audience can understand why the character does what he does. The best spot for this is in “The Ballad of Farquaad”, where the audience gets the backstory of the character. More tenderness and feeling at the beginning of the song will make the ending of the song much more impactful.
The show stealing moment came with a wonderful bit of puppetry and fantastic vocals by Jennifer Vaughn as the Dragon in “Forever.” With wings and tail manned by puppeteers in black led by Vaughn carrying the head of the dragon, both singing and operating the mouth, this simplistic yet stunning piece of prop work shows that sometimes less is more when it comes to pulling off a quality effect on stage. While the scene was adapted directly from the Broadway production, dancing skeletons and men in stocks included, it was still the high point of the production as all aspects came together quite well. The only critique was the spotlight on the face of Vaughn being too bright, pulling focus from the effect. The audience knows she is singing, so the spotlight isn’t necessary.
The ensemble of the show was full of energy, and the entire chorus gave enjoyable performances with excellent vocal work on the group numbers. The choreography by Stephanie Medenwaldt was spot on, highlighting the strengths of the cast while not being overly complex. The tap number at the start of the second act was stolen by Baxter Swint, smiling and so full of energy it was difficult to watch anyone else. This wasn’t the case of a performer trying to steal the spotlight, but someone who committed themselves fully into a dance number and was obviously having fun on stage. Another standout member of the ensemble was Alex Lewis as the Elf. With the wig and glasses, Lewis was unrecognizable, delivered her lines brilliantly and was very expressive with her body. Big things are in store for these two young ladies in the future, if for no other reason than the commitment they gave to their roles.
One of the things that made the Shrek movies so enjoyable was the mix of adult humor in an animated feature. The jokes and subtle innuendos that are written into the script make the show enjoyable for all ages. Unfortunately, there were times when the principals missed the timing on jokes and threw away some of the funnier lines. In comedy, timing is everything. Pauses are necessary, vocal inflection points are important, and the actors need to know exactly what they are saying instead of just reciting lines. Some of the punch lines for all the principal characters need to be revisited. They need to find what makes the lines humorous and try some different deliveries.
Unfortunately, the technical aspects of the show bring the overall quality down. Microphone problems were constant, either not being turned on in time – which is unacceptable when the character is already on stage – being muffled due to placement on the costumes, or crackling and feedback problems. The actors tried their best to overcome the problems, but lack of projection made it difficult to hear over the music.
The lack of a set and cutouts in the middle of the stage hampered Williams’ ability to stage the show with enough levels to make the visuals interesting, and made blocking and choreography awkward in places. The two points of the show where there were set pieces used, the castle and forest scenes, were well done and show the importance of a set in developing the scene and creating interesting stage pictures. The projections on the side of the house were quite distracting as well, specifically when characters were placed in front of the projected image and therefore became the screen. The rear wall projection worked for the most part because the projection wasn’t interrupted by the actors.
Lighting was also an issue in many areas, specifically the spotlight operation. The theatre does not have adequate or correct lighting to highlight the actors on the stage, so they use spotlights to compensate. The movements off the spots when they should have been still distracted the audience from the songs.
It is always difficult to revive a show that has had a successful run in the past, regardless of the time span between productions. It is even more difficult to create a successful run with only two years elapsed since the original production. The previous cast’s performance hasn’t faded from the audiences memory, so there is a lot for the new cast to live up to. Technical problems aside, this production of Shrek was different enough to be enjoyable, and the cast put everything they had into making it their own. Williams made some very nice new choices with her direction, in spite of the limitations she had technically. Aside from a few line deliveries, the acting was quite good and showed the work that the director put in with the cast. The new cast members, changes in choreography, and especially the change in the Dragon make this an enjoyable show whether or not you saw the previous production. Shrek runs through Saturday, October 8th at the Wichita Theatre.
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