An advertising genius can sell you something you never thought you needed and make you wonder how you got along without it before you knew it existed. That's what the people behind "Shrek the Musical" aim to do, and the expertly executed national tour had me all but convinced Tuesday night.
I loved the first two "Shrek" movies and dismissed the last two as half-baked rip-offs, but never did I want more of this story in any single dose. A 90-minute visit with the good-natured ogre, sassy donkey and bewitched princess seemed ideal. So as I watched the musical stretch to 160 minutes (including intermission), I wondered if we were being treated to too much of a good thing.
Take the song where Fiona (effervescent belter Haven Burton) greets the morning at the beginning of Act 2. Dancers seen from the ankles down tap in shoes that look like fuzzy rats. Fiona jams with the flute-playing Pied Piper. The dancers, now wearing rat noses and tails but otherwise human, whirl Fiona around. And when the well-merited applause dies, we realize the story hasn't advanced a millimeter. We know nothing more about her, and that piper never reappears.
Composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright-lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire supposedly set out to answer all the questions we had about characters' back stories. But they don't, really.
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What did Fiona do in that dragon-guarded tower for 20 years? Mope. Why did Shrek's parents kick him out as a boy? Because that's what ogres do. Why does Lord Farquaad hate people who aren't perfect? He despises his absent father, one of Snow White's seven dwarfs.
Well, so what? Farquaad (delightfully preening David F.M. Vaughn) is just an overweening fairy tale villain who needs a comeuppance and gets it, here in an uninspired smoke effect. We don't care why he's cranky; that's a given. But of course, he has to sing about it.
When the script follows the first film, it's almost as funny. Fiona, Donkey (unstoppable Alan Mingo Jr.) and Shrek (endearing Eric Petersen) form an ideal team, and Lindsay-Abaire replicates a lot of famous bits for all of them.
The fairy-tale characters get a couple of strong scenes, including a rousing song called "Freak Flag" that reminds us (for about the sixth time) not to judge people by appearances. And Carrie Compere shakes the walls of Belk Theater as the voice of the huge dragon, who's nimbly manipulated by four puppeteers in one glorious number and never seen again.
Do we really need 20 full-length songs and two reprises? As movingly as Petersen sings "Build a Wall," where Shrek vows to live alone because he thinks Fiona rejected him, can't he just tell us that's what he'll do?
By the time we reached the obligatory sing-along on Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer" - right after the new "This is Our Story," a fitting conclusion - I felt as though I'd eaten an entire gingerbread house with Hansel and Gretel still inside.