It should have been one of the biggest Broadway hits of the last decade – "Shrek the Musical," which played the first of two performances in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Thursday night.
Were there any justice in the musical theater world, David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tessori's inordinately clever improvement upon the popular series of Dreamworks films would still be playing in New York. But because the show took far too long to work out its kinks and came up against some tepid reviews, it closed after a year and never recouped its investment.
That's a bummer for Broadway, but a boon for Buffalo. The touring production of the musical that came to UB was every bit as good as the one that played Shea's Performing Arts Center in 2011, with winning performances from leads Perry Sook (Shrek) and Whitney Winfield (Princess Fiona).
The show itself is one of the more unhinged and slyly subversive musicals to escape from the tepid surroundings of Broadway in a long time. It has the look and attitude of an extremely well-funded drag show, with campy exchanges galore, endless madcap dance routines and absurdly grandiose characterizations that are part Mel Books, part Charles Busch.
Story-wise, the show is based closely on he popular "Shrek" films, which were based on a children's book by William Steig.
Shrek, a curmudgeonly, swamp-dwelling ogre, sets off on a reluctant quest with his sidekick Donkey to rescue the lovely Princess Fiona and deliver her to the evil Lord Farquaad. Along the way, they encounter all manner of fractured fairytale creatures Farquaad has evicted from his kingdom, from a comically insecure Pinnochio to a frightened gingerbread man who breaks down under the fairytale equivalent of waterboarding.
Did I mention this show is for children?
The similarities between screen and stage end there, thanks to Lindsay-Abaire's and Tessori's fruitful collaboration on tongue-in-cheek songs like "I Know It's Today" "Big Bright Beautiful World" and "I Think I Got You Beat," which features an extended farting and burping contest between Shrek and Fiona.
It is absolutely kid-friendly, and like the best children's entertainment, it works on multiple levels that allow kids and adults to appreciate it for totally different reasons.
One of those reasons, for Kids and adults alike will appreciate the excellent cast featured in this production. It's led capably by the charming and gifted comic actress Winfield, who serves as a sassy foil to Sook's affable and booming Shrek. Fine performances also come from Christian Marriner as Farquaad and Jeremy Gaston as Donkey.
It's sort of a shame that this expertly constructed musical comedy – like its grungy but lovable title character – never received the respect it deserved on Broadway. But we're lucky it's getting a second life on the road.
Shrek the musical
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Where: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst
When: 7:30 tonight