You think you know Shrek? Big green guy. Enchanted. Talks to a donkey.
The musical theater version of the DreamWorks fairytale movie isn't all that ancient or distant — its Broadway production won eight Tony Awards in 2009. Yet, as it trickles down to middle school and community theater productions, it has settled into certain cartoony conventions. Connecticut Repertory Theatre is rethinking the basic themes of Shrek's story and including the resources of UConn's Puppet Arts program for its fresh production of the show April 20 to 30 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre in Storrs.
New York-based director Margarett Perry had not seen "Shrek The Musical" when CT Rep's new artistic director Michael Bradford contacted her about staging it at UConn. "I do a lot of new work — a lot of comedy, some musicals," Perry said in a phone interview earlier this month, "but I'm not the first director you'd think of for 'Shrek.' Michael told me 'I want to make sure it has soul in it.'"
The "Shrek" musical always had a progressive, modern-theater air to it. The book of the show is by David Lindsay-Abaire, whose dark plays include "Good People" and "Rabbit Hole" (both of which have been seen in Hartford thanks to TheaterWorks). The score for "Shrek" is by Jeanine Tesori, the composer of another screen-to-stage adaptation, "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (which happens to be playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam now through July 2), and not to mention the very modern musical "Fun Home" (coming to the The Bushnell on tour in June) as well as.
"I love David Lindsay-Abaire's work very well," Perry says. "When I read the 'Shrek' script, I went 'Wow!' It's funny, moving, and oddly socially relevant and political.
"This is a play about a dictator who kicks people out of the country for being different." One rehearsal exercise Perry came up with was asking each member of the cast what one item their character might take with them if they were suddenly exiled. "The choreographer [Katie Johannigman] is being asked to work with 15 people and at least 18 pieces of luggage."
The CT Rep production isn't a major overhaul, and it's still abundantly family-friendly. "We're not doing some weird interpretive thing," Perry says. "We're honoring the material. This show is about something. The humor can open you up to the audience."
But this show will seem different from the "Shrek" tour that played The Bushnell in 2011. "We aren't going to have Shrek in prosthetic make-up — I don't even know what that would cost!" Perry laughs. But professional actor Will Mann (who played Bobby in the Broadway and touring productions of "Memphis") seems to have the grandeur and attitude required for the ogre. Other professionals, in a cast otherwise made up of UConn graduate acting students, are Desi Oakley (as Fiona) and Mark Boyett (as Lord Farquaad). Perry thinks the project is ideal for student actors — "you're not asking 24-year-olds to play 50-year-olds." She appreciates the cast's energy. "I just love inventive actors."
But this "Shrek" may be most distinctive for its plethora of non-human performers. There are more than two dozen different puppets in CT Rep's "Shrek" — "as small as a sunflower and as big as a dragon," Perry says.
Zach Broome, a second-year student in the puppet arts program who's credited as the puppet designer for the show, says the puppet arts program has worked on other CT Rep shows in the past, including last year's spring musical "Spamalot." "We don't insert ourselves in the shows just because, but with something like 'Shrek,' of course we would get involved." Broome notes that while working on this show, the puppet arts program had four of its own puppet productions happening on campus.
Broome and his fellow puppeteers are working in several different styles for "Shrek." "The Gingerbread Man is a hand puppet, with some marionette elements. There are some rod puppets. The dragon is really fun — it takes three different performers."
The Broadway "Shrek" used a puppet for the Gingerbread Man and some other small roles, but strangely not for Pinocchio, the puppet who thinks he's a boy.
"Pinocchio is coming to terms with being a puppet," Perry says. "Instead of an actor, he's a real puppet." In fact, he's the sort of puppet where you can see the puppeteer right behind it. Matt Sorensen is the puppet arts graduate student who's playing (and manipulating) Pinocchio. "I'm this 6-foot-5 guy," Sorensen says, "and in front of me there's this 4-foot puppet boy."
Sorensen not only makes Pinocchio walk and talk, he can make him move his mouth and arch his eyebrow. The puppeteer says that the special challenge in "Shrek" is that the puppets "interact with the real world" and not just with other puppets. After a few rehearsals, he noticed that the other actors were "looking at Pinocchio and not at me, and I knew I must be doing something right."
SHREK THE MUSICAL — book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Margarett Perry, produced by Connecticut Repertory Theatre — plays April 20 to 30 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Road, on the UConn campus in Storrs. Performances are Wednesday at Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees on April 29 and 30. 860-486-2113, crt.uconn.edu.