We Went To ‘Shrek: The Musical’, And Guys, You’ve Gotta See This
You'll never know if you don't go. You'll never shine if you don't glow.
I had more than a few questions prior to seeing Shrek: The Musical. It seemed reasonable, for example, that you could paint a hulking bald dude green, maybe add some funnel-type appendages for ears, but how the hell do you translate an anthropomorphic donkey to the stage — let alone a sultry dragon?
More importantly, would the musical incorporate the film’s undeniably banging BAFTA and Grammy-nominated soundtrack, in particular the iconic opening song (and arguably equally iconic meme) ‘All Star’? You’ll never know if you don’t go, I reasoned, so I went, and I return now with one missive: guys, you need to go see this show immediately.
As it turns out, Shrek: The Musical is actually both established and famous — I was just late to the party. It’s been performed on Broadway and the West End; it’s won a Tony Award (and been nominated for eight). The version I saw was one of the first Australian performances at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre, starring Jay Laga’aia (of Star Wars fame) as the titular green ogre man, and it did not disappoint.
In fact, it managed to be simultaneously a technically excellent musical and also a huge cache of bizarre, endearing, sometimes inexplicable humour — both the kind that makes the original Shrek film a source of nostalgia, and the kind that makes it a huge meme.
Take, for an example of the latter kind of humour, the answer to my first question: how do you make a human dude look like a very specific, particularly beloved type of talking donkey? Neither the Broadway nor the Parramatta costume departments had a good answer to this question: Donkey, clad in a furry, skintight onesie with bizarrely padded ass and thighs, looked more like the offspring of the rabbit from Donnie Darko and a Kardashian than anything vaguely equine.
It’s a great credit to actor Nat Jobe, then, that this didn’t end up mattering in the slightest — from the first minute he appeared on stage, Jobe was recognisably the Donkey we know and love, in everything but aesthetics. And to the costume department’s credit, the other characters’ looks were deftly executed. Lord Farquaad, for instance, was played by the reasonably tall Luke Joslin on his knees for the entire performance, with skinny rubber legs attached to his thighs in a way that created the illusion of a very fitting self-important waddle.
Pinocchio, meanwhile, had a nose that grew mechanically when he fibbed — a detail that drew applause the first time it expanded on cue, and laughter the second time when it malfunctioned and had to be yanked out. And by far, the star of the costuming was the dragon, played a group of actors dressed like dominatrixes, respectively wielding the dragon’s head, wings, torso and tail.
Sadly, the stage version of Shrek does not feature the soundtrack from the films — with the exception of one song, which I won’t spoil, though it’s regrettably not ‘All Star’. Notwithstanding this, the musical is extraordinarily faithful to the film while managing to expand on it in truly delightful ways.
Farquaad, for instance, rides a steed literally named White Privilege, and spends the entire film whinging about being abandoned by his parents only for it to be revealed that actually, his father kicked him out when he was 28 and still living in his basement. In a stroke of genius from the set designers, Duloc is decorated with banners featuring a selection of what appear to be Farquaad’s selfies, because of course it is.
Meanwhile, Donkey serenades Dragon with a song about liking big girls; Shrek and Fiona flirt through an extended farting rally, and the assembled fairytale creatures are strongly queer-coded (they come together at one point for a rousing song about embracing being a freak, set against a rainbow backdrop — in the middle of the song, my friend leaned over and whispered “the postal survey”, and the comparison was apt).
In fact, maybe I’m just better placed to notice it now, but the musical seemed to champion minorities, and difference — and hell, ugliness — even more so than the film did. It made me think about how radical Shrek was and is, as a film that actively champions authenticity and ugliness above beauty and power, that opens with a marginalised community being driven from their homes and ends with that community seizing their home back, on their terms, without shame.
Seeing Shrek as an adult also made me uncomfortably aware of the ways the film fell short of being radical, too. There is uncomfortable overlap in both film and musical between Farquaad being the butt of the joke because of his conceitedness, and being the butt of the joke because of his stature.
Donkey’s character, too, often strays towards racial stereotypes — something that becomes much more obvious when the person voicing the character is visible. Seeing the musical made me want to watch the film again and more closely, and pay real attention to the ideas just beneath the surface of this beloved children’s tale.
Ultimately, though, beloved ends up being a good descriptor of this musical. It managed to capture what made the source material so fiercely loved without diminishing it — at the end of the performance, it scored a standing ovation from kids, boomers, and cynical youth alike. I laughed, and I cried, and I refreshed my email eagerly for the press pics so I could show them to my friends, spark new memes.
I guess what I’m saying is I’m a believer. There’s not a trace of doubt in my mind: if you have the opportunity, you have to go see this show.
Shrek: The Musical, produced by Packemin Productions, is on at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre until February 17. Brisbane’s putting on a production in March, and Canberra’s planning one for April. If you live elsewhere in Australia, see if there’s a production coming up near you. It’s well worth it.
Sam Langford is a Staff Writer at Junkee. She is on Twitter.