‘Shrek the Musical’ a welcome, but brief guest in Ventura County
Trent Mills stars as SHREK in the 5-STAR THEATRICALS production of SHREK THE MUSICAL, directed by Kirsten Chandler and now playing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks. Ed Krieger

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.—In this growing suburban community in Ventura County, just over the Los Angeles County line, 5-Star Theatricals (formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre), has just opened its 2018-19 season with an all too brief run of Shrek the Musical. If you’re interested in seeing it—and you really should be!—hurry, because its last performance is Sun., Oct. 28.

Many filmgoers, especially those with young children, will recall the original 2001 film Shrek produced by DreamWorks. It was based on a children’s book by William Steig (1907-2003), whose cartoons often appeared in The New Yorker.

Shrek won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and starred (in speaking roles) Mike Myers, John Lithgow, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz. Shrek has enjoyed an afterlife in a number of commercially successful sequels and spinoffs. A fifth film is due for release in 2019. The value of the Shrek brand has mounted astronomically if you factor in the merchandising.

The film has an interesting history which may be of interest to readers who follow the internal contradictions in the capitalist world. In brief, Jeffrey Katzenberg, longtime Disney corporate executive, was forced out in an internecine power struggle and joined the DreamWorks team with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Shrek contains a myriad of little digs, some not so subtle, at Disney animated features, which often appropriated familiar folk and fairy tales and turned them into multi-million-dollar enterprises.

References abound in the script to Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, and several others. Duloc, the villain Lord Farquaad’s castle, with its own gift shop, is a parody of Disneyland. Farquaad (say that name a few times and see if it doesn’t sound like a nasty put-down) is himself the overcompensating, altitude-challenged son of one of the seven dwarfs and the princess of the Princess and the Pea story.

The musical version, based on the film, opened on Broadway in December 2008 and closed in January 2010, after 441 performances. The musical furthers the theme of in-joking by expanding the humor to reference such musical properties as Dream Girls, The Lion King, A Chorus Line and Into the Woods, with some of the Nutcracker ballet tunes thrown in for good measure.

Trent Mills and Lawrence Cummings. Ed Krieger

The main reason I schlepped out to Thousand Oaks for Shrek the Musical—I can legitimately throw in a Yiddish word because shrek itself is Yiddish for fear, terror or fright—is that the music was composed by Jeanine Tesori, whose work I admire deeply (see reviews of her Violet here and here, as well as Fun Home and the recent Soft Power). She also composed Caroline, or Change, a civil rights-era musical with autobiographical lyrics by Tony Kushner. I was not disappointed to discover this decade-old work. I loved, loved, loved it!

In fact, having seen Fun Home just last season, it was obvious that Tesori adopted the idea of a triptych of singers of different ages for the autobiographical role(s) of graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, from her own musical Shrek’s three performers (chronologically, Bayley Tanenbaum, Kate Godfrey and Alison Woods) in the Princess Fiona role.

Part of the pleasure in this work is the cleverness with which book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire appeals not only to both young and adult audiences, but also to a public with varying degrees of musical sophistication and familiarity with Broadway shows.

Another aspect of this production that pleased me is that it confounded an assumption I had unconsciously made. I somehow believed this was a national touring production, and was happy to find out that it was all one-of-a-kind, locally created with props design by Alex Choate, costumes by Kathryn Poppen, lighting by Jose Santiago, sound design by Jonathan Burke, choreography by Karl Warden, a 16-strong orchestra led by Dan Redfeld, all superbly directed by Kirsten Chandler. Almost all the cast were drawn from nearby communities in the Thousand Oaks and greater L.A. area.

For this pre-Halloween show, all kids are invited to come in costume to receive a special trick or treat goodie bag and a chance to dance live onstage with the cast in the grand finale. 5-Star Theatricals exists in part to nurture local talent, with workshops and classes for young wannabe performers, and several of them had roles in Shrek. Yes, Broadway fairy tales do sometimes come true.

But not for you

Shrek is premised on the idea that kids are born with an infinite variety of family configuration, natural ability, ethnic, national and cultural background, physical differences, and potential. The propaganda of success and achievement that is the inherent birthright of every child is belied every day in a myriad of ways, as young people’s aspirations are micro-aggressively thwarted by poverty, race, class, legal status, disability and other factors. The fact is that for so many, the fairy tale happily-ever-after ending does not include you.

Lawrence Cummings and Dragon puppeteers. Ed Krieger

Fairy tales are an ancient system of acculturation, teaching ideas about parenting, friendship, discovery, exploration and experimentation, right and wrong, justice and fairness, good and evil. In Shrek, a multitude of standard fairy tale creatures are fractured to reveal that in truth no one has a real chance in this world on their own. Everyone is an exile, a reject, an outsider or quirky freak, judged by society and ruled a loser. The witch tawks like a bawn New Yawka. The big bad wolf acts a little swishy. Donkey has a motormouth that barely covers his attachment issues. Others have “foreign” accents or maybe too much girth. Shrek himself speaks with a Scottish brogue.

Only by wit, mutual acceptance and solidarity can the characters unite to turn back the malevolent force of the Farquaads of the world and overcome their fears. These fairy tale people—like the children in the audience—finally have the opportunity to escape the imposed societal narrative they’ve been handed, of being a failed version of who they were meant to become.

The musical contains so many important themes for young people—for everyone, in fact—to think about. Try not to judge people you don’t know. Imagine yourself in the part you’d like to play in life. Don’t erect walls around you, or around others. Voice your thoughts and feelings. There are times when an apology is in order; and also times for forgiveness.

The song “I Think I Got You Beat” has Shrek and Fiona trying to outdo each other’s abandonment story—a kind of “Oppression Olympics” number—and they wind up bonding over the reality that they both belch and fart like everyone else, though louder and smellier, of course, ’cuz they’re ogres. Kids can learn not to feel shame over normal bodily functions. Beauty and happiness are not always how they’re depicted in fairy tales: It’s OK to be an ogre.

As Pinocchio puts it, “I’m wood, I’m good, get used to it”—a good example of how concepts can be conveyed that contain appropriate meanings for different age groups in the same audience.

Marc Baron Ginsburg stars as Farquaad and Alison Woods as Princess Fiona. Ed Krieger

Even Farquaad is portrayed with some empathy—as a dwarf, he hasn’t had an easy time of it either.

The four leads and the ensemble are simply terrific—Trent Mills as the not so fearful Shrek and Alison Woods as the mature Princess Fiona, Lawrence Cummings in the wisecracking pivotal role of Donkey, and Marc Ginsburg as Farquaad, who hilariously contorts his body and adjusts his costuming to memorable comic effect. Special mention must be given to the amazing Deanna Anthony, a powerhouse of a singer, who takes on Mama Ogre, Mama Bear and Dragon.

Other cast members include Kyle Frattini as Pinocchio, Zachary Thompson as Young Shrek, Bayley Tanenbaum as Young Fiona and Kate Godfrey as Teen Fiona, and the ensemble featuring Matthew Christopher Thompson, Gabrielle Farrow, Dominic Franco*, Sara Gilbert, Kevin Gilmond*, Isaiah Griffith, Augusto Guardado, Mitchell Johnson*, Drew Lake, Colden Lamb*, Julia Lester, Natalie Miller, Kat Monzon and Alexa Vellanoweth. The four Dragon puppeteers* merit additional applause.

If I were assembling the canon of musicals that kids ought to see in some future decent society, this one would rate high on my list. And it’s fully adult-friendly, too.

Shrek the Musical runs through Sun., Oct. 28, with performances Thurs. at 7:30 pm, Fri. at 8 pm, Sat. at 2 and 8 pm, and Sun. at 2 pm. The venue is the 1800-seat Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Bank of America Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks. For tickets, call (800) 745-3000 or go the company website.

Dale Greenfield contributed to this review.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.