Based on the 2001 animated movie version of William Steig's children's tale -- and maintaining some the screenplay's strongest bits -- the new musical once again focuses on the ogre Shrek (Brian d'Arcy James), who lives in a swamp and learns about love and not judging others by their appearances when rescuing a princess called Fiona (Sutton Foster) from a tower so she can marry despotic monarch-in-waiting Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber). As the musical's creators work it, that swamp -- with its new population of displaced fairy-tale figures -- becomes a metaphor for the problems caused in the process of turning a 90-minute cartoon into a two-and-a-half hour live-action songathon.
The show's biggest problem is that it is full of too many additional lumbering segments, many of which are made worse by the creators' assumptions that metamusicalizing the show with twee references to a number of recent and not-so-recent song-and-dance entries, Woody Allen film, and Valley of the Dolls, would amount to innumerable new delights. (To take just one example, they consider it amusing to bring on a prop horse and announce it as "Xanadu.") Not to mention that the puerile vulgarities the movie only hinted at are now made clear, such as a belching-and-flatulence contest between Shrek and Fiona that looks back to Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do (I Can D Better)", but lowers it to grade-school bathroom-humor level.
For the most part, the principal cast fulfills all the script's requirements with professional aplomb as they romp around Tim Hatley's truly evocative sets and wearing his colorful costumes. As the eventual lovers, James, one of Broadway's best leading men, deserves extra credit for remaining appealing in a true-to-Steig get-up, while Foster musters her usual gumption -- even if she has nothing to do that approximates her recent Drowsy Chaperone and Young Frankenstein rolls in the musical hay. Sieber should be receiving hazard pay, since as the pint-sized Farquaad, he has to perform his role almost entirely on his knees, and John Tartaglia reaps fun as a frustrated Pinocchio. The lone misfire is Daniel Breaker as Shrek's companion, Donkey, who turns Eddie Murphy's side-splitting screen turn into an effeminate bore.
While Tesori's melodies are blandly tuneful, Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics possess no adhesive quality. And too many of d'Arcy James and Foster's character ditties come across as unnecessary ballast and bombast. Indeed, the giveaway to the score's being instantly forgettable is that the song played as the audience departs is not a reprise of anything from the show -- but Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer," which was played under the film's closing credits.
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