IN August 2014, Yorkshire had the honour of staging the British regional premiere of DreamWorks Theatricals’ Shrek The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre, when 2023 Strictly Come Dancing quarter finalist Nigel Harman was the director, incidentally.
Now the latest tour plays York, with co-directors Samuel Holmes and Nick Winston at the helm and 2016 Strictly champion Joanne Clifton playing the Grand Opera House for the fourth time, after The Rocky Horror Show in 2019, preceded by Flashdance and Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2017, here revelling in the role of Princess Fiona.
Nik Briggs’s presence in Monday night’s audience was a reminder that Shrek The Musical has turned this theatre green once before: he played the not-so-jolly ogre in York Stage’s production in 2019.
Holmes and choreographer Winston oversee a 2023-2024 touring production big on video, sound and lighting design, bigger still on big numbers, and biggest of all on big, big love. All that and a particularly towering Shrek as played by the lovably lumpen, grumpy Antony Lawrence.
You will surely know the iconoclastic story and characters from the first DreamWorks animated Shrek film in 2001, but the book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and persistently perky music by Jeanine Tesori were new to the 2008 musical.
Their songs, more forceful than overtly melodic, match the bright and bouncy tone of the trademark irreverent humour that adds playful send-ups of The Lion King and Les Miserables to the original film template of satirising and redefining the fairytale pecking order established by Grimm and Disney.
Hence the presence of myriad fairytale characters, in the manner of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, all in rebellious mood, from Georgie Buckland’s Gingy, who takes the biscuit, to Scotty Armstrong’s Big Bad Wolf, Mark D’arcy’s Pinocchio to Jonathan David Dudley’s Pied Piper.
All have their moments in song and dance, less so in dialogue, dominated instead by the big four of Lawrence’s Shrek, Clifton’s Princess Fiona, Brandon Lee Sears’ Donkey and James Gillan’s foppish Lord Farquaad.
Not forgetting a terrific turn by blues-belting Cherece Richards as the power-vocal front of the love-sick Dragon, hot on guarding Princess Fiona in the tower (as well as a second role as the Wicked Witch).
Early days in her professional career after leaving the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts this summer, keep an eye and ear on this BA Musical Theatre 2023 graduate, who more than makes the grade in Shrek, even with a huge dragon puppet design by Jimmy Grimes behind her.
Shrek The Musical’s naturally solitary, swamp-dwelling Shrek is even ruder, definitely windier, than his film version, still irascible, still wary, but nevertheless teaming up with Sears’ irrepressible Donkey to extract Clifton’s temperamental, bored, probably bipolar Princess Fiona from her tower to deliver her to Lord Farquaad for her fairytale nuptials.
Lawrence’s Shrek makes being glum a joy, his warts-and-all unconventional hero experiencing the highs and lows, the frictions and fallouts of buddy movie relationships with Sears’ jive-talking, ever-excitable Donkey, a hoofer with hooves and a Little Richard meets Prince lip.
Lawrence’s big Scottish fella warms to Clifton’s equally unconventional Princess Fiona: her favourite role, she says, one that testifies to the creed of being who you want to be, rather than living up to other people’s expectations. Clifton is the triple threat writ large: stirring singer, swish dancer and humorous actress.
The show’s humour works on two levels: sometimes pantomimic for children, especially in the fairytale characters and in its love of raucous burps and bottom burps in Shrek and Fiona’s unbeatable party-piece duet, I Think I Got You Beat.
At other times, adult, smart and savvy, such as the observation that if you look grotesque, your life is “Kafka-esque”. Then stir in that British favourite, high camp, in the fruity form of Gillan’s big-headed but diminutive Lord Farquaad, with his curtain of silken hair, Shakespearean airs and Kylie hot pants.
Philip Witcomb’s set and costume designs echo pantomime; Winston’s choreography is full of individual swagger and ensemble electricity, and if the singing is often better than the songs, Shrek The Musical’s return to York, with its big, bright wonderful fairy world, fits the festive mood of shows at this time of year.
In the words of the closing I’m A Believer, if you thought love was only true in fairy tales, Lawrence and Clifton make it a good starting place.
Shrek The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.