SHREK THE MUSICAL – Blu-ray review

“Shrek the Musical” opened at the Broadway Theatre on November 8, 2008 and closed a little more than a year later, after 441 performances. For Broadway, that’s a short to medium run, but it wasn’t shut down because it was a stinker of the “Springtime for Hitler” sort.

It received generally positive reviews and earned eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical—but won only for Best Costume Design. “Shrek the Musical” was also nominated for a Best Musical Show Album Grammy. So people who know Broadway and know music thought the show had merit. “Shrek” was simply too expensive to produce—a whopping $25 million that almost guaranteed investors wouldn’t make their money back.

Because “Shrek” was revised and scaled back for touring, this video of an October 2009 performance is as elaborate as anyone will ever see this production again. Even Londoners saw a scaled-down version when it ran successfully for 715 performances. That alone makes “Shrek the Musical” on Blu-ray a bit of a treat. For people who live far from the Big Apple, it’s a treat, too, to have a helicopter shot of New York City followed by a shot of the exterior, then interior of the famed theatre in which it was playing, so that you get a sense—even if it’s ever so slight—of what it might be like to be there in person, sitting in the audience at a Broadway show.

Since “Glee,” it seems as if there are plenty of young people saying they aspire to a career in music theater, and these wide-eyed dreamers and fans of Broadway shows are the main audience for “Shrek the Musical.”

Tightly framed and with numerous close-ups and medium shots, “Shrek the Musical” makes you feel as if you’ve got a front-row seat. Because those close-ups and quick cuts from camera to camera are the only ways in which the filmmakers can bring a sense of the cinematographic to the production, it would have been tempting to go overboard. But fans of theater can rest assured that there are plenty of long shots that capture the full spectacle.

Like “The Lion King,” the plot of this musical is so familiar that any real variety depends upon the casting decisions, the performances, and the costuming and props.

Open your Playbill and you’ll see that the Broadway cast features Brian d’Arcy (“Smash,” “Game Change”) as Shrek, Sutton Foster (“Bunheads”) as Fiona, Christopher Sieber (“Two of a Kind”) as Lord Farquaad, and Daniel Breaker (“Limitless”) as Donkey. The entire Broadway cast is here, because it’s a Broadway performance that was filmed.

I’m not surprised that the musical won a Tony for costuming. When the guards or the fairy tale characters crowd the stage it’s the kind of colorful extravaganza that attracts families to shows like this. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with the design or choreography of the dragon. In fact, as with “The Lion King,” I much prefer the animated version.

The songs themselves—there are 21, including reprises—are sung with varying degrees of success. Hampered by having to try to talk like Mike Myers and sing like an ogre, d’Arcy sounds a little too unmelodic and abrasive in one song, and a little too smooth in another.

Who knocked it out of the park? Given the audience applause (and I’m happy to add my own clapping), that would be Sieber, a two-time Tony nominee whose resume includes performances in “Into the Woods” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” Admittedly the audience is on his side the minute they see he’s performing on his knees, with his legs hidden behind a dark cape and a pair of tiny fake legs perfectly capturing the diminutive nature of the cartoon prince. But he also manages to infuse the songs with his character, as does Foster. In fact, even the young women playing younger versions of Fiona (Leah Greenhaus, Marissa O’Donnell) sing with interpretive emotion in “I Know It’s Today,” with all three Fionas onstage together.

That song, “This Is How a Dream Comes True,” and “Big Bright Beautiful World” are perhaps the most memorable, with “I’m a Believer” added from the animated feature and performed energetically as a finale.

As Donkey, Breaker is no Eddie Murphy, but he’s got the right tone and the right amount of sassiness to make the jokes work. He and Sieber may not get top billing, but I can’t imagine this musical working without them.

I don’t want to misrepresent myself as an avid theatergoer. I’ve seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway, I’ve seen a West End production of “The Lion King,” and I saw touring performances of “Wicked” (in Chicago) and “Mary Poppins” (at the Kennedy Center). I thought all of them were better than this production. “The Lion King” would have been a tie had the music not been stronger than what we get here. Still, “Shrek the Musical” is far from a stinker. It’s energetic, it’s enjoyable, it’s colorful, and it’s a whole lot better than any of the live-action film adaptations of animated features that are out there.

Fox has some real issues with their Blu-ray encodes, though. While the DVD played in my stand-alone Blu-ray player with no problems, the Blu-ray would only play the Fox logo and then go to black screen. Even when I tried rebooting my player, the results were the same. When I went to a friend’s to test it on a different player it did the same thing at first, but then finally, after numerous attempts, loaded. So be warned: this may not play on your Blu-ray player.

There’s so much quick movement onstage that it poses a problem for cinematographers. The Blu-ray features more detail than the DVD, but not a whole lot more, and I can only attribute it to the constant motion onstage. In close-ups and when a character stands and sings a slower song you can see a definite improvement in visual quality. “Shrek the Musical” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I saw no compression issues related to the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc.

The audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that’s booming enough in high-energy numbers. For the most part, the audio captures the dialogue well, but there are a few instances when the crowd noise makes it difficult to hear. But hey, that’s the theater experience. Subtitle options are English SDH, French, and Spanish.

This combo pack includes a DVD and UV copy, and if you have the kind of problems with the Blu-ray that a number of reviewers have had, you’ll be glad to have the DVD. There’s not much, though, in the way of other features. “Shrek the Musical Songbook with Singalong” offers songs from the musical to listen to in rapid succession, while another group of songs offers subtitles so that viewers can sing along. The only other bonus feature is “From Swamp to Stage: The Making of Shrek the Musical,” which features Cameron Diaz (the voice of Fiona in the animated film) as the narrator for an eight-minute look at the process.

Bottom line:
There are a few off-color lines, but those should fly right over the heads of youngsters who will be more intent on the costumes and stage action. In fact, I’d say that this musical will appeal mostly to families with younger children.