Aug. 14-16 and Aug. 21-23, 8 p.m.
The Muni, 815 E. Lake Shore Drive, Springfield
Tickets: 793-6864 or online at themuni.org
Looking for a place where you can see a wisecracking gingerbread man, an enormous singing dragon, a talking donkey and a diminutive aristocrat sharing the stage with a couple of green freaks who perform a duet of revolting bodily noises? Then the Muni’s production of Shrek the Musical may be for you.
Based on the 2001 animated comedy Shrek (and an earlier novel), the musical first opened on Broadway in 2008. And while the Hoogland Center for the Arts previously staged a more basic version, the Muni is the first to bring the full musical to Springfield.
Director Craig Williams II has plenty of experience bringing similar shows to the local stage; his Muni resume includes Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast and Dreamgirls. Since bringing a larger-than-life fantasy together requires dedication and teamwork, Williams asked some of his regular staff members to join forces. He has three main costumers and three key makeup artists who are in charge of outfitting a cast of 49 actors who portray fairy-tale favorites like Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Bears, Humpty Dumpty, Tinker Bell and others. “It’s a diverse cast, and to me, they are a lot like the show itself. The show is about being yourself and accepting each other’s differences, and the cast really personifies that,” says Williams.
The elaborate costumes, ornate set pieces, and over-the-top special effects are critical. For them, Williams turned to local effects artist Nathan Millspaugh, whose TV and film credits include ER, Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Momma’s House. To create Shrek’s mask for actor Brad Barding, Millspaugh tried to take a life cast of the thespian’s face. Overwhelmed by the process, Barding balked. “I never knew I was claustrophobic,” he remarks. Luckily, the crew realized fellow cast member John Pickett had similar facial features, and Pickett served as a proxy, volunteering to have his face covered in “goop and plaster” for the hour-long casting process. Millspaugh worked from Pickett’s mold to sculpt and paint the cowl and prosthetics worn by Barding on stage.
Millspaugh is responsible for another impressive creation that steals the show for a pair of scenes. He spent approximately 80 hours crafting a 30-foot-long dragon operated on stage by seven puppeteers. The puppet is the largest Millspaugh has ever built, and its cumbersome shape forced him to split its creation between four different sites. Despite plans to finish early, Millspaugh wasn’t able to assemble the entire creature (complete with wings, color-changing eyes and an operable mouth) until the show’s final dress rehearsal. Although it didn’t come together until the last minute, the dragon performs flawlessly. Its entrance elicited applause on opening night, and after some minor maintenance, it was ready to go again for Shrek’s second performance.
The story of Shrek begins when the title character’s parents evict him from the family home on his seventh birthday. Shrek makes a solitary life for himself until fairytale characters begin encroaching on his property, having been cast out of the Kingdom of Duloc by the comically short Lord Farquaad. Farquaad is played brilliantly by Damien Kaplan who manages to spend two and a half hours singing and dancing on his knees to make his character appear just a few feet tall.
Shrek, befriended by a talking donkey, confronts Farquaad, hoping to restore peace to his swamp by convincing the Lord to welcome the others back into his kingdom. Farquaad wants to marry Princess Fiona, who is held captive in a tower protected by a fire-breathing dragon. Farquaad agrees to relinquish the deed to Shrek’s swamp if the ogre will rescue the princess for him. Along the way, Shrek falls in love with Fiona, who, despite a secret curse of her own, must decide whether she will marry the Lord or the ogre.
Williams says the large cast took ownership of the show over a seven-week rehearsal process. They showed up to build and paint sets and volunteered their time for other activities. When rain delayed and threatened to cancel Saturday’s performance, they grabbed brooms, squeegees and industrial fans to dry the stage. They even donated money for a chicken dinner when two actors asked if kids from The Matthew Project (a local outreach to homeless District 186 students) could attend a rehearsal. To play Shrek, Barding spent two months driving back and forth from his home in Decatur. “The Muni just has a way of bringing people together and building community,” he says. “It’s been a pleasure, and it made the drive easy.”
Barding says he’s developed real friendships with several cast members, and the chemistry between him and Andrew Wheaton as Donkey shows. They’re both strong performers who share many funny moments together on stage. Hannah Siehr is terrific as Fiona, as are all the others. After a fast-paced first act, things slowed down a little too much in act two, but overall, Shrek the Musical is an eye-popping crowd-pleaser sure to entertain kids and adults alike.
Zach Baliva is a filmmaker and journalist living in Chatham. Zachbaliva@gmail.com.