If you’re in need of an empowering musical that feels like a party, do yourself a favor and go see City of Fairfax Theatre Company’s Shrek the Musical, produced and directed by Amanda Herman Snellings with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. Shrek (the animated motion picture version) is turning 20, but the story still feels fresh and its themes as relevant as ever. This cast of this musical, which was originally produced on Broadway by Dreamworks and Neal Street Productions, is composed of charming performers ages 7 to 77, and it will appeal to kids younger than 7 (I would say 5 and up) as well.
One of the many treats this production includes is the live orchestra accompaniment. Children especially will be enthralled by the orchestra pit and all the instruments. Shrek the Musical begins with “Big Bright Beautiful World,” which includes the origins of the ogre Shrek played with both skill and heart by Peter Marsh, and the princess, Fiona — both of whom were cast off by their parents at the age of 7, according to the customs of their respective fairy tale archetypes. But as a character says later in the show, “These fairytales need updating” and so traditions will be thwarted in amusing and sometimes crude ways.
In “The Story of My Life” and “The Goodbye Song,” we learn that Lord Farqaad has banished all Fairytale Creatures from Duloc into Shrek’s swamp, which the latter prefers putrid and solitary. He soon meets a buffoonish donkey named Donkey in “Don’t Let Me Go.” Donkey is played by Andy Shaw, who reminded me of Martin Short in his mannerisms and comic style.
The supposed utopia of Duloc (now that the “undesirable” fairytale creatures have been exiled) is the setting for “What’s Up Duloc,” where Lord Farquaad takes center stage. John Kownacki is pitch perfect as Farquaad, from his brilliant vocals to his swagger and stage presence (with an assist from some very clever costuming thanks to costume designer Amber Kiffney). In order to get his swamp back, Shrek agrees to take on a classic quest on behalf of Farquaad — slaying a fire-breathing dragon and rescuing a princess.
In “I Know It’s Today,” a beautiful song full of yearning, we get to know Fiona as we see her grow from an optimistic, starry-eyed little girl to a slightly jaded teenager to a completely exasperated but somehow still hopeful grown-up princess who has waited 20 years for her knight in shining armor to arrive. Three different young women play each of these parts, and we begin to see glimpses of Fiona’s less than perfectly ladylike behavior.
Of course, Donkey and Shrek conquer the dragon in “Forever,” but as is the case throughout the show, the audience’s expectation is humorously toyed with when the dragon falls in love with Donkey. The audience certainly fell in love with Geraldine Davila. She was the one who slayed on Friday night.
The first act ends with the trio of not-yet friends setting out for a journey back to Duloc so Princess Fiona can marry Lord Farquaad. Here the musical lets the audience in on Fiona’s secret: at night she turns into an ogre herself, but she is ashamed of this and hides it from the world. It’s worth noting that I found Sara Watson’s Fiona infinitely more likable than the movie version of this character.
Shrek’s second act was able to keep the energy and entertainment going strong, kicking off with “Morning Person” featuring some fun tap-dance choreography by Stacy Yvonne Claytor for the Rats, Pied Piper, and Fiona, and “I Think I’ve Got You Beat,” a laugh-out loud-duet where Shrek and Fiona compete over who had the worst childhood, but end the number in what can only be described as a gas-off: belching and passing gas. Crude, yet charming at the same time.
Fiona and Shrek’s bond grows and in “Make a Move,” Donkey and crowd favorites The Three Blind Mice (played by Stephanie Blakely, Kamila Adamzyck, and Roux O’Dell) encourage Shrek to do just that. The musical then makes use of that classic plot device where a character overhears only part of a conversation and misunderstands it, throwing a wrench into what seemed like an easy happy ending.
This part of the musical is slow and sad, which serves as a stark contrast to arguably the best number of the production: “Freak Flag.” This is a classic Broadway ensemble number with dazzling choreography and magnificent vocals from Chiara Bangor-Giorgio as Gingy. The song feels like it’s symbolic of an entire generation and delivers the empowering core messages of the musical: be yourself, and what makes you special makes you strong. It’s a message I hope my five-year-old, who was watching with me, never forgets.
After the finale, the entire cast performed “I’m a Believer” as a curtain call. It is perhaps the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a while. The entire audience was on its feet dancing, clapping, and singing along; we left truly feeling as if “…it’s a bright big beautiful world, with possibilities everywhere.”
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Shrek the Musical plays July 16, 2022, at 2 pm & 7:30 pm; July 17 at 3 pm; July 20 at 7 pm (sensory-friendly show); July 21 at 7:30 pm; July 22 at 7:30 pm; and July 23 at 2 pm & 7:30 pm presented by City of Fairfax Theatre Company performing at Katherine Johnson Middle School, 3801 Jermantown Road, Fairfax, VA. Tickets ($25 adults, $20 children 12 and under) are available online.
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required. Proof of vaccination is no longer required. The complete City of Fairfax Theatre Company COVID-19 Policy is here.
Art and Scenic Design by Jason Hinebaugh and Olivia Hinebaugh; Lighting Design by Beth DeMarco; Sound Design by Gregg Carter; Properties Design by Ford Rowe; Hair Design by Bridget Tunstall; Makeup Design by Mary-Francis Dini; Stage Management by Maddie Anderson; Music Direction by CJ Redden-Liotta.