By PAM HARBAUGH
From costumes galore and comic physicality to delivering what the audience expects and more, “Shrek the Musical” may have a lot of challenges, but it’s worth every penny and every minute spent producing it, says Steven Heron, director at Titusville Playhouse where the show opened last week and runs through September 10.
“It’s the perfect fairy tale in a twisted kind of way,” he said. “It’s right up my alley.”
First, he said, it’s funny. Then there is the beautiful love story and fairy tale creatures who impart the theme of being yourself and, as the song goes, “Let your freak flag fly.”
“The humor in this show is exactly what you think,” said Sterling Lovett, who plays Donkey in the show. “It’s a little gassy, a little sassy, and as Shrek says ‘sometimes not too classy.’ But the show is definitely full of laughter, great music, and lots of fun.”
Based on the 2001 animated movie voiced by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, the stage musical debuted on Broadway in 2008. The book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the drama “Rabbit Hole.” The music is by Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the music for the dramatic musical “Fun Home,” which Titusville will be producing later this season.
Despite the dramatic gravitas of these creators, “Shrek the Musical” delights audiences with its sweetness and upbeat humor; and witty nods to the older demographic as well.
The story revolves around a green ogre named Shrek who is perfectly happy with his swampy lifestyle. The peace is disturbed one day when he discovers that, upon order of Lord Farquaad, a hoard of fairy tale creatures have resettled in Shrek’s swamp.
Shrek and a reluctant sidekick, a frightened but funny Donkey, set out to convince Farquaad, a surprisingly diminutive overlord, to let the creatures return to their home. Along the way, they meet Princess Fiona and Shrek falls in love.
Within this simple storyline are a chorus line of fairytale characters and enough gags to keep you laughing from curtain to curtain.
Playing Shrek is Joe Tokarz, an Equity actor who performs at Disney and toured as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.” It’s his first time in the role, which was played in New York by one of Broadway’s leading actors, Brian d’Arcy James.
“Shrek is a wonderfully crafted character,” he said. “In the hands of this amazing cast, especially our Donkey, Sterling (Lovett), I guarantee you there will be laughs from start to finish from all our patrons.”
Lovett, who is also a professional actor and choreographer, won audiences over as Sebastian the wise crab in Titusville Playhouse’s 2015 production of “The Little Mermaid.”
This is his first time in the role of Donkey. It has long been a dream to do this role, not only for the humor, but also the show’s message.
“The most fun thing about playing Donkey is getting to tape into everything that he is,” Lovett said. “One of my favorite songs in the show is called ‘Freak Flag,’ and the words ‘let your freak flag wave, let your freak flag fly, never take it down, raise it way up high,’ may mean a little something different to everyone. But more than anything, it’s about loving yourself, accepting your differences and quirks, and knowing you will be loved in return.”
Sarah Biggs, who studied acting at Marymount Manhattan College, plays Fiona. Like Lovett, she has won Titusville Playhouse audience hearts in previous roles, especially her turn as Penny, the best friend in “Hairspray.”
“(Fiona) is not your typical princess,” Biggs said. “She is loud and sassy which is really fun. The hardest part is absolutely the stamina. She is constantly moving.”
Of course, creating all these fantasy characters means huge focus on costumes and makeup.
“You’ve got to do it right if you’re going to do it,” Heron said. “People are going to expect it to be done the way they expect it. I want to do a family friendly spectacle. It’s the way we open our season, like with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ last season and ‘The Little Mermaid’ the season before that.”
We need to see the green ogre, that donkey, a tiny Farquaad, a dragon, Pinocchio, three little pigs and so much more.
The swamp has to be murky. The castle at Dulac has to be grand. The money-shot transformation has to be spectacular.
“It seems like a small, quaint show when you read it,” Heron said. ‘The fairy tale creatures are only in three numbers. But it’s full spectacle show in this small package.
“And you have to figure out a transformation. Oh my god. Your first read you’re like ‘This is going to be a breeze.’ But it takes a lot of production value and finessing to make things land.”
So Heron rented costumes, which cost him $15,800. Shipping them alone one way costs more than $1,000.
But it’s not as easy as just throwing money at the problem. There are too many moving parts. To find the right dragon costume, Heron went to eight different companies which came with rental fees ranging from $1,600 to $8,800. He spent days finding the right puppets for the Puss and Boots bit, which, he said, “lasts a hot 10 seconds.”
Shrek wears prosthetics under his green makeup, requiring at least two hours to apply.
Fiona has even more of a challenge, which is helped in great part by the Broadway “bible” – a book which has the makeup plot for Sutton Foster, another leading Broadway actor, who was Fiona in the Broadway show.
Fiona has only 40 seconds for a big…er…costume change.
“She has to change costumes and put…makeup on,” Heron said. “I keep telling the cast, ‘You guys have to make your lines last a little longer.’ “
In fact, all 32 casts members have some pretty daunting responsibilities. Each ensemble member plays four to five characters.
“They are constantly changing costumes and taking makeup off and putting it on,” Heron said. “Everyone backstage is working out and getting cardio.”
But at its heart, “Shrek” is about…well…”heart.”
“I think it’s easy to hear the title ‘Shrek the Musical’ and think silliness, and there is that,” Lovett said. “But this show has so much heart.
“There’s not only the message of truly loving someone for who they are, flaws and all, but also knowing it’s okay to be yourself and everything that comes along with that. “
“Shrek the Musical” runs through Sept. 10 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sept. 7; and 2 p.m. Sundays and Sept. 2. Tickets are $23 to $29. Call 321-268-1125 or visit TitusvillePlayhouse.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running next week in Melbourne Beachsider.