‘Shrek the Musical’ brings out the goofy, campy side of WU med students
I’ve never seen the movie “Shrek.” I know that’s a little hard to believe, even for me. It’s 2019, and I have never seen “Shrek.” Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t know the basic story. I know Shrek and Fiona fall in love and that Fiona turns into an ogre at the end, but it doesn’t matter because true beauty is on the inside. I know Donkey is supposedly ridiculous, and so is Lord Farquaad, and I even know a wide variety of unfortunate Shrek memes from middle school. But I have never actually seen the film.
This means that when I went to see the Washington University Medical School’s production of “Shrek the Musical” on Saturday night, I had no idea what to expect.
This production marked the 14th time the Medical School has produced a musical. The show felt very campy, and that was a good thing. It embraced its cheesiness in a way that, while admittedly concerning at first, turned out to be the best thing the show could have done.
“Shrek” itself is, so I gather from the film’s Wikipedia page, a little bit ridiculous. The musical is more so. Though all major plot points are the same, they are expedited and made even more humorous. The tournament scene, in which Shrek (Nick Youmans) accidentally wins the honor of rescuing Princess Fiona (Abby Hellman) from her tower for Lord Farquaad (Philip Frasse), is removed and substituted for an ultimately-disregarded lottery. Farquaad’s hatred of fairy-tale creatures is the result of Grumpy the Dwarf, his father, kicking him out when he was 28 and still living in the basement.
The musical numbers ranged from the emotional (Shrek’s “When Words Fail,” in which he laments his inability to articulate his feelings for Fiona) to the strangely timely (Shrek’s angry attempt to “Build A Wall” and keep everyone out of his swamp, and “Freak Flag”, where the fairy tale creatures learn to embrace their individuality and be proud and accepting of their differences) to the just plain crazy (Fiona’s tap dance interlude with the Pied Piper’s rats in “Morning Person”). Donkey (Matt Mosley) and Dragon (Jennifer Berrian) have several romantic duets, often stealing the spotlight in an ensemble number to do so. Some songs were hilarious, and some made me wish for subtitles (even though it was a live performance) so I could get the jokes.
The backdrop comprised of two folded sheets so as to create three distinct locations—the swamp, the road and the castle, which could be Duloc or the tower Fiona was trapped in. Sometimes, the sheets would get stuck or folded wrong, which would lead to someone adjusting them in the back of an ongoing scene.
The costumes did not take themselves seriously either. Donkey walked on two legs like everyone else, but was unable to pick up anything, as he had large hooves on his hands. Gingy was a puppet on Little Red Riding Hood’s (Jane Bufe) hand. To show Farquaad’s well-known shortness, Frasse walked around on his knees and had a set of fake legs sticking out from under his skirt. Sometimes, people would “carry” him across the stage. (By this, I mean they would stand on either side of him and pretend to hold his arms as he stood up and walked.) Once, he rode a horse, which beeped like a piece of machinery when it walked backwards.
All this is to say that no, the production wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t a Broadway show, with complex sets, impeccable costumes and professionally trained singers. But it didn’t have to be. “Shrek the Musical” wanted laughs, and it got them. Every time the audience went “Awww!”, or laughed or gasped in shock, it was because the show had seen its weaknesses and played to them. With a show like “Shrek”, cheesier is better, and this performance was cheesy from the moment Shrek sang his first line alone in the swamp to when he sang his last, dancing with Fiona, Donkey and Dragon and the ensemble to a post-bow rendition of Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer”.