My thanks to the Broadway.com website for alerting me that Netflix recently acquired streaming rights to the home video release of Shrek the Musical, a stage adaptation of the 2001 Dreamworks animated comedy that gleefully skewered classic Disney cartoons. This lavish Broadway show opened shortly before Christmas in 2008 and got respectable reviews and eight Tony Award nominations, yet ran only a little over a year, roughly half that of the godawful 2010 musical version of The Addams Family, which most critics loathed.
The primary viewer interest in this title probably will center, as it did for me, on Sutton Foster, the two-time Tony Award winner who earned yet another nod in this show for her performance as Princess Fiona, whom the diminutive despot Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber) dispatches the ogre Shrek (Brian d’Arcy James) to rescue from a dragon. Foster picked up a lot of new fans last season with her delightful work in the too-shortlived ABC Family dramedy Bunheads, but if you, like I, never have seen Foster in a live stage performance, you owe it to yourself to see this show – because as good as this actress is on TV, the stage is clearly where her true north lies.
If you don’t believe me, check out the opening number to Act 2, called “Morning Person.” Up to this point in the show, Princess Fiona has gotten relatively little stage time (she’s been trapped in an offstage tower for most of the first act), and this song, a hilarious send-up of all those twittering Disney princess tunes, takes place on the first morning of her freedom. It starts out with Fiona duetting with a cheerful songbird who explodes under the force of Foster’s vocal belt, then builds steadily to a big Fosse-like number backed by a chorus of the Pied Piper’s rats. The song is just a parody, but Foster’s connection with both everyone on the stage around her as well as the audience in front of her is totally electric. This lady absolutely ignites under the stage lights, and it’s a complete joy to watch her at work.
This recording also includes all the other Tony-nominated members of principal cast, including, in the title role, Brian d’Arcy James, whom some viewers may recognize from his thankless role as Debra Messing’s TV husband in Season 1 of Smash. Come to think of it, you probably won’t recognize him, given that he’s buried under green prosthetic makeup, but thankfully this TV production gives you enough tight close-ups to capture what’s coming through his expressive eyes.
Sieber, another Tony nominee, brought audiences to their feet with his hilarious portrayal of a character that required him to perform the entire show on his knees. Daniel Breaker, a scene-stealer as Donkey, and John Tartaglia (a former Tony nominee for Avenue Q) as Pinocchio didn’t capture Tony nominations this time around, but still deliver crowd-pleasing performances.
Shrek the Musical on Broadway was a very expensive show and lost a substantial part of its investment. Subsequent productions on tour and internationally have slenderized the show significantly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The end of Act 1, which tries to translate in stage terms Shrek’s rescue of Fiona from the dragon, is kind of a frenetic mess.
In any case, this filmed production is probably the only chance you’ll get to see Shrek the Musical with all its bells and whistles intact, performed by a solid-gold cast of principles. This show is decent enough on its own terms (it wants to be Spamalot, but it just isn’t), yet I can’t imagine seeing it without the splendid stars of this recording, who absolutely work full-out to sell this material. And streaming a show that sold tickets on Broadway for more than $100 a pop for less than the admission price to a film at your local multiplex is a bargain by any measure.
Then again, when it comes to Sutton Foster, you can’t really put a price on talent like that, anyway.
(P.S.: If you don’t have access to Netflix, this production of Shrek the Musical is available on DVD and Blu-ray for under $20 from Amazon.com and other retailers).