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Monday, Oct. 14, 2013

Shrek Sings!

First Stage presents the lovable green ogre

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The most joyful noise in Milwaukee is coming from First Stage Children’s Theater, where Shrek the Musical is being performed. For those unfamiliar with the famous animated film or the book by William Steig, Shrek tells the story of a big green ogre who lives alone in a smelly swamp. “I’m green, I’m mean—get used to it,” Shrek announces to anyone within earshot.

Soon, his swamp is crawling with fairytale characters booted out of a nearby town at the order of Prince Farquaad. He wants the population to look as homogenous as possible. The most engaging of the rejected characters is the sassy Pinocchio. In this pared-down version of the 2008 Broadway musical, Pinocchio isn’t quite as prominent. But the talented Conlan Ledwith (part of the day cast that performed on opening night) still manages to impress. Ditto for the cross-dressing wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, who emerges from Grandma’s bathroom wearing a flamboyant pink dress.

Director Jeff Frank worked extensively with the show’s original creators to create this children’s adaptation of Shrek the Musical. Although slightly tamed from what one would see on Broadway, it still has enough adult humor to keep parents laughing along with the kids.

Shrek (wonderfully played by John Maclay, First Stage’s associate artistic director) offers to mend things with Prince Farquaad to get the characters out of his swamp. Along the way he saves a frightened donkey (Lamar Jefferson) being terrorized by the prince’s guards. Once out of danger, the jive-talking donkey immediately takes a shine to Shrek. Despite Shrek’s efforts to discourage him, the donkey won’t be deterred from accompanying him to the kingdom. Shrek relents, and they soon meet the pint-sized Farquaad.

Matt Daniels, well known for exquisite comic timing, has a challenge on his hands when playing Farquaad. Or more properly, he has a challenge on his knees. The diminutive Farquaad must be played by an actor walking on his knees, with a cloak and fake legs/feet contraption concealing this from the audience. Daniels uses his clipped English accent and condescending tone to good effect, making Farquaad an insufferable bully. Farquaad badly wants to be King, so he sends Shrek and Donkey on an errand involving a princess who must be rescued from a tower. As the set shifts to reveal the tower, the audience meets Princess Fiona. Elizabeth Talford steals the spotlight as a slightly daffy princess who is both formal and crude. Talford is given ample opportunity to demonstrate her quick wit and lovely voice.

Aside from an accomplished cast of adult and child actors, the show’s costumes are no less than one would expect on Broadway. The children earn praise for acing the show’s snappy choreography. And the show’s message— differences are to be celebrated—hits a home run in the final production number, “Let Your Freak Flag Fly!”

Shrek the Musical runs through Nov. 17, at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, call 414-273-7206 or visit firststage.org.