Shrek: The Musical and a Dark Hour of the Soul
A review of Morgan-Wixon Theatre’s youth production of “Shrek: The Musical,” and its profound impact on the author.
“Shrek” is a Yiddish word that means ‘fear.’
On this Saturday, I am brimming with shrek. Shrek is inside me, penetrating me, my beliefs, my body. I am so filled with shrek that I am breathing heavily, only waiting for the shrek to finish its sordid work and go home in an Uber in the dead of night, with the promise of no follow-up texts. The shrek is what drives me, but I cannot live my life dictated by shrek.
The Shrek was good. My heart is black.
The first thing that hits you upon entering Morgan-Wixon Theatre is the feeling of a community I am not a part of, less hearth and more free candle warmer with a $75 purchase. The walls vibrate with half-heard conversations of going to Florida for the holidays, Maddie managing her peanut butter allergy during rehearsals, Hayden’s tantrums and how they relate to the cycles of the moon. Did you hear about Carol? What they did to her after twelve years of loyal service in that office? I swear to God, if that had been me, I would have etc. etc. etc. until [end result]. I keep quiet while the audience members gawk at the framed headshots of their children and neighbors and look down at the email that landed me here.
A few phrases jump out. “Sarcastically oriented” is one of them, “steeped in negativity,” “hesitant,” and “earliest convenience.” They are written by an intelligent person who is suspicious of bringing me back into the Shrekhole, suspecting I am overqualified to be insisting on conducting a review no one asked for. I am here to face my shreks, and my biggest shrek is Shrek itself.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is shrek, and the oldest and strongest kind of shrek is shrek of the unknown.
One way I’ve never wanted to see myself is as someone who cannot be trusted at a local production of Shrek: The Musical and yet, for the third time, this is who I find myself to be. The figs on the other branches have shriveled and died and what remains is this limp-haired six-foot person, me in an uncomfortable seat sitting next to the most popular girl at Santa Monica High School. Her name is Alex. She doesn’t talk to me. Obviously. She has a boyfriend who can’t believe his luck. Obviously.
Programs for community productions of anything never disappoint. The politics are cut and dry, the love and give-a-damnedness of you boiled down to how much of a standard sheet of paper folded in half your parents were willing to pay for. The rules are as follows: a full page ad is hack and showy, reserved for the chorus members whose sweet old parents will shamelessly love them into complete emotional stagnancy; a quarter page indicates a middle child or an afterthought; no ad at all means your parents are in debt or have trendy pill addictions. The sweet spot is half-page, lower hemisphere if you can swing it, featuring a brace-faced you in a pile of leaves - no siblings, please - with big block letters that read “You can’t catch her...SHE’S A STAR! Good luck, Gingerbread Girl!” Perfect.
There is a light in the shrek-filled Shrek audience. The theater is so full that there’s no way the actors can run into the audience in a cloud of sweat, a theatrical trope that fills my veins with shrek. Before the show starts, I draw a self-portrait.
Here is me.
One Shrek, looking to the jagged edges of a million other Shreks that he secretly shreks. Shreks with different ambitions and strengths and shreks and locations where he can focus on a different area of Shrek, hone in on a new shrekful quality to define himself by and give meaning to being Shrek, if shrekfully. All these Shreks have the same stupid fanny pack. Only one of these Shreks can prevail. All of these Shreks are “steeped in negativity” at their “earliest convenience.”
In thinking these deep, swampy thoughts, I miss most of the first act.
Here’s what I do know. The lead, a senior in high school, does a remarkable job in the title role and communicates the pathos and shrek of Shrek with ease, all while caked in makeup and a puffy fake stomach. He is, perhaps, the best Shrek I have ever seen.
I have seen many Shreks, and battled many shreks, and avoided many mirrors.
It should be said that, for reasons unclear, Shrek performs the entire show in seven-inch platform shoes and towers over many of his castmates, and the fifteen-year-old Fiona carries the show with a delightful soprano and impressive tap skills. The teenager playing Lord Farquaad is welcomed with cacophonic applause every time he takes the stage. The chorus is exceptional, singing and dancing throughout, with many cast members taking on additional roles to build up Duloc to its true fairy-tale potential.
Morgan-Wixon’s production is a good one and, if I am to believe the elderly couple beside me, “the best youth show since um, five shows ago? Maybe six? Which was the one with the lead girl and the braids? I loved that one.” There’s an exuberance onstage that shows the passion the kids have for the stage and the theater itself, and a love of the material that I am too steeped in negativity at my earliest convenience (sic sarcastically oriented) to understand.
It is better to be shreked than loved, if you cannot be both.
It’s unclear whether most of the fairy-tale references in the musical adaptation resonate with the cast reciting them - after all, most were born after the turn of the century and didn’t benefit from all that stupid time we had to learn watered-down fairytales during the second Clinton administration. It’s a safe bet that the highly referential Duloc sense of humor is learned one, cues take from parents the same way an avoidance of healthy food and conflict are inherited in families that are mine specifically. Children in the audience see their dad laugh at a reference to Mother Hubbard, only a half-remembered “I-know-that” relic itself, and produce a small grunt of their own.
It can be argued that Shrek in its many iterations, whether it be book, film or Tony-winning musical, is a cultural looking pool strewn with broad-reaching debris. Stripped of its nudge-wink qualities, the story boils back down to the book prolific New Yorker comic William Steig wrote in 1990. It's a story of an ogre who leaves home seeking adventure and marries fugly royalty after confronting himself in the mirror. The Shrek from this Saturday is six degrees separated from that, but comes together in a particular act two number.
Shrek belts out the final lyrics of “Build a Wall,” the Bon Jovi-esque emotional peak before he finds out that the girl he has a crush on is too full of shrek to admit that she's a Shrek. “I’m gonna build me a wall,” Shrek reminds us after being rebuked by his one true love. “I’ll build it ten feet high,” he brags, as if a ten foot wall could keep out more than his own platform boots.
This lyric is one I’ve reflected on considerably in my two years as a Shrek scholar. Why ten feet? It’s such a low number when the massive strength and power of the ogre is considered, most being between eight and twenty-five feet tall when they’re fully grown according to a garbage Wikia article I just read. Why aim for just enough when the potential to build walls much higher, dig moats much deeper, sit in chairs much easier is possible?
Sometimes, as with Shrek, we must lower expectations in life. Sometimes, the things we want are not the things we get. Sometimes, a ten foot wall is better than, for instance, no wall at all.
I think shrekless is having shreks but jumping anyway.
The fart scene, of course, is a hit. The bird explosion in the act two opener, naturally, is a smash. The massive dragon puppet with glowing eyes, unsurprisingly, is an audience favorite. In spite of the show’s length, these gags are spaced out logically enough to keeps kids engaged through the finale, which is followed by another finale, which is a re-hash of “I’m a Believer” by Smash Mouth, which is a re-hash of “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees. The show itself has the nutritional value of Taco Bell bean paste, but it looks nice on a poster.
My biggest shrek is realized when the actors manage to come out into the audience by the curtain’s close. Life can be a shreklekh zach - a terrible, terrible thing.
The cast tackles family members and glow with a job well done, and I decide not to bother them. My grandmother once told me that no experience is wasted if you learned something from it. Like many who hold this belief, she died without ever winning a Nobel Prize.
I slump down the streets of Santa Monica as the sun sets, feeling steeped in negativity at my earliest convenience. What have I learned in spite of my sarcastic orientation? My Shrek ears (duh) fall out of my bag, and a handsome stranger picks them up.
"Shrek is dope," he says.
And just like that, the shrek is gone. I’m still a believer.
Shrek: The Musical by Morgan-Wixon Theatre: 5/5 Stars