A green ogre, an enormous dragon, and a wise-cracking donkey can only mean one thing – the acclaimed Broadway production Shrek the Musical has made a return.
Based on the 2001 animated film from DreamWorks and the book by William Steig, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, has introduced new dialogue, rendering Shrek the Musical its own distinct proposition. The story elements remain familiar: Shrek, (The Lion King, We Will Rock You) – a giant green ogre whose home, made in a peaceful swampland, is annexed by Lord Farquaad, ruler of the city-state of Duloc, who is obsessed with banishing the fairy tale creatures who inhabit his kingdom.
With the promise of reclaiming the deed to his swamp, Shrek and his sidekick, a particularly garrulous donkey, rise to the challenge set by Lord Farquaad to rescue the Princess Fiona from the highest room in the tallest tower of a dragon-guarded keep. Farquaad desires Fiona’s hand in marriage so that he can claim the kingship – though of course there is a sting in the tale as Princess Fiona hides a dark secret that comes as quite a surprise if you are not familiar with the story.
In a land far, far, away …
This new production at the Alhambra has been given a makeover for 2023 – sometimes for the better and, at other times, maybe not so. Previously, Lord Farquaad spent the entire evening comedically walking around on his knees. In this new presentation, Farquaad (Olivier nominee James Gillian) has been re-invented as an impossibly vain and comedically pompous villain.
Leading the strong and talented cast is Antony Lawrence (The Lion King, We Will Rock You) who is excellent as Shrek, portraying the ogre’s endearing grumpiness with charm and a hint of vulnerability – all delivered in a brusque yet homely Scottish accent at times reminiscent of Mike Myers’ original voicing.
Strictly Come Dancing’s Joanne Clifton is energetic and spirited as Princess Fiona and as the story unfolds she shines even further. Not your typical Princess, Clifton comes with a rebellious attitude matched by sharp comic timing. The chemistry between her and Lawrence is delightfully balanced in the idiosyncratic contrasts between the two characters.
Gillan as Lord Farquaad is flamboyantly camp, and the reinterpretation works, though perhaps his malevolent edge might be a little softened by this particular characterisation.
Brandon Lee Sears is outstanding as Donkey – a character equally beloved by both adults and children – the cantankerous bromance with Lawrence creates a perfect double act, again with impeccable comedic timing. Impressive, too, are Sears’ vocals that allow his songs to soar.
Cherece Richards gives wonderful voice to the Dragon, especially on her brilliant rendition of Forever – one of the best interpretations I have heard. The arrival on stage of an even bigger Dragon operated by puppeteers in the same fashion as War Horse’s Joey is an extra-captivating touch.
The stage set is impressive, with film projections enhancing an atmosphere of enchantment and complementing the beautifully choreographed physical set pieces.
The show culminates with the Neil Diamond song I’m a Believer – a rousing, toe-tapping ensemble piece, perfectly bookending a show that is warmly entertaining and full of heart. Certainly, in the run up to the festive season, an extravaganza that can be enjoyed by both the young and the not-so-young alike.
Leaving the Alhambra, I took the time to listen to comments as the audience departed through the lobby – they ranged from “Well, I really enjoyed that!” to “… maybe the best show I have ever seen”. Hyperbole perhaps, but Shrek the Musical certainly weaved a spell that evening and the production is so universally uplifting even a cynic would have to crack a reluctant smile.
Runs until Saturday 28 October 2023