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Shrek the Musical: From swamp, to stage, to silver screen

Once upon a time, David Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer. What he did after that makes him either the most versatile or the most insane writer working today: He put Shrek on a stage.

Now, three years after its departure from Broadway, Shrek the Musical can finally take a seat beside its big-screen brothers in a newly released video recording of the original Broadway cast on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Of course, the ogre’s jump back to film makes a few things more apparent. This production is far from amateur: A fairy tale set design, immaculately precise costuming and lifelike — if ogre skin can be that — makeup call back both the impossible visual marvels of the animated movies and the even more impossible ones of the imagination. Shrek is alarming to behold so closely, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons between it and Disney’s slew of Broadway spectaculars. That, of course, could be intentional — after all, DreamWorks sprouted in part from a dispute at Disney, and the original Shrek won an Academy Award over Disney and Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Now, DreamWorks is pushing the musical back into the spotlight, perhaps in hopes of firing up the feud again.

It does, however, run into several problems. Shrek suffers from the awkwardness of retelling a beloved story that’s still relatively new. Mike Myers doesn’t have exclusive rights to the Scottish accent that lead Brian d’Arcy James adopts on stage, but Daniel Breaker’s Donkey is guilty of one of the worst Eddie Murphy impressions ever recorded. It is disappointing that none of the actors really put much of their own signature into the characters (with the exception, maybe, of Christopher Sieber and his puppet-legged, man-childish and show-stealing narcissistic Lord Farquaad. Or of Sutton Foster, whose Princess Fiona is absolutley entertaining). But it is possible that, given how much hangs on the trilogy’s popularity, everyone’s hands were tied firm.

At the same time, it’s interesting to see how the story, already a send-up of fairy tale tropes, successfully handles the bottomless gag-bag of musical theater. Though it’s not the most original musical, it is certainly one of the more self-aware. A Lion King-esque giraffe puppet sneaks its way into a travel montage. Sieber, whose turn in Spamalot proved he’s just as good at mocking Broadway as he is acting on it, throws in the final belt from “Defying Gravity” to uproarious applause and a few groans. At its worst, Jeanine Tesori’s score barely bubbles above forgettable children’s rock, but at its best, it is a mix of surprisingly catchy staple pieces, from a Golden Age revue number (“What’s Up, Duloc?”) to Motown with three blind Supremes (“Make a Move”). It’s not offering anything groundbreaking, but it is a treat to experience.

To be completely fair, that is what Shrek has always been about. Lindsay-Abaire successfully keeps the touching story intact, and his jokes for grown-ups in the audience do the original just as much justice as the fantasy family fun does. A home release means that that fun is now more accessible than ever—there is no reason not to give it a try. If nothing else, the show is a gigantic heap of innocent amusement, a big green monster snickering at the complacency and pomp just beyond the edge of its strangely cozy swamp.

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