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Performing arts

Step right up, it's the Fairytale Freak Show! Shrek the Musical runs this week at the Orpheum

Fairytale characters fly their freak flag in this delightfully derivative staging of Shrek
Fairytale characters fly their freak flag in this delightfully derivative staging of ShrekPhoto courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre Trust

As a confused adolescent it is easy to get stuck deciding whether to conform to what everyone else is doing and what is actually best for you as an individual. The pressure to conform as a youth is astoundingly strong, and it is hard to hang on to individualism when all you want is to be accepted by your peers. I remember my mom buying me a poster that read 'What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.' All clichés aside, back then, I took that advice to mean that I should rebel against the norm and in every situation seek to stand out from the crowd. To this day, I still might be what some people consider a nerd, a weirdo, or even a freak, but I’ve come into my own. And if anyone gives me a hard time about it, oh well, I like myself. Shrek the Musical is a tale all about being different, and how even those who have been scorned by society, can still find happiness if they are willing to embrace it.

William Steig started the Shrek frenzy in 1990 with his children’s book that told of a lonely ogre who finds companionship when he ventures out into the world, and learns how to open his heart to those who had long since feared him. 

The name Shrek is derived from the German and Yiddish languages to mean “fear” or “terror,” which was what Shrek the ogre always instilled in the other creatures he encountered. Steig gives little explanation into Shrek’s disposition. The later Dreamworks movie series does delve slightly into why Shrek is so mean and distant. But the musical really focuses on the happenings that lead Shrek into his swamp of solitude. 

In the latest book by lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, Abaire shows both Shrek (Keven Quillon) and Princess Fiona (Haven Burton) being traumatically separated from their parents at a very young age. And though the Princess and the Ogre come from very different backgrounds, they are brought together by a common understanding of each other’s struggles.

Shrek the Musical, even more so than the animated series, focuses on the shame and the hurt that people can feel when society casts them aside for being different. It's an ode to anyone who has ever been denied that club membership, been shot down by someone who was "out of their league," or the person who looks totally normal on the outside, but only speaks Klingon in public. It’s a story about finding your own definition of normal, then uniting in pride with your fellow outcasts. 

Shrek does bare some political substance in condemning Lord Farquaad, who is depicted as a fascist dictator determined to eliminate all impurities from his kingdom. The show also alludes to the current gay rights debate in the song ‘Let your Freak Flag Fly,’ where the show also makes perhaps an incidental comparison of homosexuals to fairies and misguided wooden boys, but nothing in theater is really an accident is it? 

The stage show features many of the hilarious scenes you remember from the movie, peppered with a few added character details and of course, the addition of a full original score. The show uses puppetry and elaborate costumes (design by Tim Hatley and David Brian Brown) to bring about the zany animated feel of the shows’ cinematic predecessor. It’s easy to see why one of the musical’s eight Tony nominations in 2009 was for Best Costume Design. 

The shining star of the production was in fact Lord Farquaad (David F.M. Vaughn). While his temper was, shall we say…short, his presence was large enough to steal the show. Flailing his tiny-tap dancing legs around like a Stretch Arm-Strong who lost his stretch, Vaughn's knees alone should win a prize for the role. 

So be warned, this show contains scary ogres that can break a grown man in half with one easy snap, teeth that can rip through a dragon hide, and breath that can debilitate an entire royal army. But if you approach with an open-mind, you might find, that the only real threat is the fear in your own head. 

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