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Friday, April 12, 2024
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“Shrek The Musical:" the right amount of ‘ogre’ the top

Bartell Theatre had audiences singing “I’m a believer.”

Bartell Theatre opened its fall season with a huff and a puff that blew many audience members away. Fairytale creatures and Farquaad fans united at Madison’s local theater to watch “Shrek,” a musical swamped with comedy.

OUT!Cast Theatre group used Bartell Theatre’s Drury Stage to perform “Shrek The Musical,” an early 2000s classic comedy turned spunky musical. The musical itself is a dream for directors, for “Shrek’s” beloved themes and musical numbers make the play an easy fan favorite.

And please it did. The Bartell audience enjoyed jokes from the original movie in addition to those written by the musical’s book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire. A thoroughly entertained audience laughed throughout the entire play and remained extremely engaged. The night’s excitement and warmth did not begin at the show’s start, but beforehand with the amiable front of house staff. The ushers welcomed audience members into the Bartell and made guests feel at home by offering to take photos or providing helpful information about the theater and downtown area. 

Like any ogre, this review has layers. In addition to the audience’s enjoyment, other highlights include ‘Shrek-ceptionally’ talented Emma Elsberry Tenebruso, who played Fiona. Her exuberant energy encapsulated the firecracker Fiona was in the movie, and her vocals often gave audience members chills. Ethan Richard, who played Shrek, was also a delight on stage with crisp vocals and a knack for comedic timing. 

Lizzie Haller’s music direction truly made the show come together. It was evident through powerful harmonies and confident vocals Haller knew how to elevate the cast’s talent. Her direction of the orchestra was also noteworthy, and it was apparent both the members of the ensemble and the pit had confidence in her cueing through the duration of the show.

The lighting design made the show’s atmosphere fully encompassing, bringing life to a less developed set. With limited set changes, the lighting was key to understanding locations of the characters in the world of the play. Lighting was also critical in supporting the moods of the songs – for example, the 1960s inspired song “Make a Move” was dynamically different from the heart touching ballad “When Words Fail.” 

The creativity in costuming deserves recognition. Budgets for community theater shows typically do not allow for each actor in the cast to have their own set of tailored costumes. This is especially true for larger casts, but “Shrek’s” 24-person cast was unique. The dragon, portrayed by the talented Katy O’Leary, had a large ruffled cape with rods at the ends that gave the actress the illusion of wings with the ability to move them. This costume choice, and other choices throughout the show, were not only effective, but contributed to the success of understanding the differences between the multitude of characters.

Altogether, many choices made by actors, lighting and costume may have seemed outlandish in other productions, but had a neat way of fitting together in OUT!Cast’s take on the comedy. Many creative decisions worked well in this production, which is why it was easier to pick out some of the choices that did not find as much success. 

The staging and blocking of certain scenes — and especially certain actors — felt dull in portions of the show. By giving actors “park and bark” blocking — where an actor stands in one place to deliver a set of lines or a song — or unmotivated movement, moments seemed off to the audience when actors lacked the necessary freedom to express their characters. With so many static moments, the pressure relies on actors to create interest for the audience, which can be difficult in such intimate settings like the Drury Stage at Bartell. The space as a whole was not used as generously as one might have hoped. There were ample opportunities for audience interaction or greater use of the stage space itself, but most of the action was placed downstage center. There are some moments where the blocking came together, but many were left feeling awkward to the audience.

The choreography itself was adequate for a community theater production, but it seemed as though actors needed to clean their dances a bit more. Whether it be wrong arms or just an overall lack of energy, a few numbers needed the flair that could have been there had the cast been a bit more polished and energized. Not every actor who auditions in community theater is a dancer, so shows that require as many technical skills as “Shrek” can be a challenge for choreographers who must balance the talents of such a large and varied cast with the needs of the script.

As a whole, the show was entertaining and a great way to experience the performing arts community in Madison. The joy the actors experienced while performing was palpable, and the audience reacted positively to this excitement. The ability to recreate and redefine such well known characters is a complex journey the cast and creative team behind OUT!Cast Theatre’s production accomplished successfully.

Madison residents are fortunate to be able to have such a wide array of opportunities to experience the performing arts, and Bartell Theatre is one of those resources where people of all ages can attend or perform in a show and enjoy the vibrant treasure that is live theater. Bartell is located off of State Street near the Capitol and has shows lined up from now through the end of May 2023. Catch their next show “Bent,” a play about queer life in Nazi Germany, Oct. 14 to 29.

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