Little Theater of Manchester certainly wasn’t compensating for anything taking on the complex technical production of “Shrek,” with a theatrical kingdom boasting layers of talent and musical prowess.
The unconventional fairy tale is about a gruff ogre’s quest to take back his swamp from outcasted fairy tale creatures squatting there. Shrek (Michael King) finds himself on a journey with a talking donkey (Lucas Veo) to rescue the quirky, cursed Princess Fiona (Chelsea Kelle) at the bequest of the lowly Lord Farquaard (Brian Rucci), who is obsessed with finding a queen to rise in stature to king. Unexpected romance blossoms along the way in the production that preaches to let your freak flag fly and embrace yourself despite your differences and oddities.
Opening night Friday definitely wasn’t on short supply of compliments as the actors’ high energy cast a spell of radiant comedy and unbreakable fun on the audience – for adults and children alike.
One of those compliments came from Geno Auriemma, head coach of the national championship-winning UConn Huskies women’s basketball team. He was in the audience with his wife, Kathy watching their daughter, Alysa Auriemma play Dragon.
“This is something she loves to do. She played the perfect part for her and got to do what she loves best. She loves to sing, she loves to dance. And she loves children’s literature. I don’t think it can get any better for her than this,” said Geno Auriemma, who, along with his wife, have been watching their daughter act since she was 10 and try to catch as many shows and opening nights as they can.
While most of Connecticut is used to seeing Geno in action court-side coaching the lady Huskies, as he watched the LTM production as a spectator, he likened the courage of the actors to that of his athletes. He said that the way this production handled the show “made it fun for everybody” and that the actors looked like they were having fun so it “made the audience have fun with them.”
“I was thinking this when the show ended that it takes a lot of guts to go up there and do that stuff, as much as it takes for kids to play,”Auriemma said. “You’re always performing and you’re always hoping that the audience loves you and it takes a lot of guts, takes a lot of courage and I’m really proud of her.”
When Alysa Auriemma emerges on the tower as the personification of the fire-breathing Dragon guarding Fiona, she looked like a rock star — Pink to be precise with her short, blond hair spiked and streaked with flame-like orange. And when she sang, her voice breathed soulful power into the gospel-style music with a flare of pop as though she was headlining a concert.
Director John Pike’s staging of the dragon was creative. Some cast members carried the dragon head — with glowing eyes — body and tail. Three others — Sandra Lee, Tracy Funke and Kate Brophy — sang backup gospel vocals as the Dragonettes. Alysa not only voiced Dragon, but also portrayed her emotions and you could tell by her body language and facial expressions what Dragon is thinking and feeling.
“I thought it was fun because I originally thought I wasn’t going to be on stage. I thought I was going to do the voice and that was it. And then when I got to rehearsals, they were like, ‘no, we want you to be on stage too.’ And basically it was just like getting to act like a pop star for three minutes and getting to do fun stuff and trusting everyone else was going to do their thing,” Alysa Auriemma said. “It’s fun because I get to see the whole set as what’s happening and I get to watch how the dragon’s going around…it was really fun to get on stage doing it. Fun because I’m like the dragon’s subconscious and then the body of the dragon.”
Funke, who was featured prominently vocally as Humpty Dumpty and Mama Ogre, Veo as Donkey, King as Shrek, Kelle as Fiona, Lee, who also played Gingy and Sugar Plum Fairy, and Ian Yue as Pinocchio also excelled in particular with their powerful singing, textured with character voices. There were a lot of other talented singers in the cast too, with people playing multiple roles, giving the ensemble a chance to shine.
Aside from Dragon’s “Forever,” standout songs included a beautiful, touching trio in the tower called “I Know It’s Today,” with Little Fiona (Teagan Krieger), Teen Fiona (Paige McHenry) and Princess Fiona (Kelle), Donkey’s (Veo) “Don’t Let Me Go,” Shrek (King) and Fiona’s (Kelle) comical battle about who had it worse growing up in “I Think I’ve Got You Beat,” Pinocchio’s (Yue and fairytale creatures) “Story of My Life” and Gingy’s (Lee) “Freak Flag Fly.”
Kelle also shined in “Morning Person,” featuring Kate Brophy as the voice of the exploding bird. She tears off her princess skirt to show some legs in a major tap number that includes Yue as the Pied Piper and Alysa Auriemma, Emily Borne, Brophy, Funke, Lee, Krieger and Emily Weiner as the dancing rats. That was the highlight of many delightful dance numbers, choreographed by MacKenzie Friedmann. McHenry did a flip as Little Red Riding Hood!
King brought layers of sarcasm, toughness and tenderness to Shrek beneath a Scottish brogue that was done just right and wasn’t so heavy that it washed out the words. He and Veo had great chemistry. While Veo did have Eddie Murphy inflections in his voice, he was enjoyable to watch with his high energy, enthusiasm and bouncy movements. “Travel Song” was fun, referencingn other fairy tales and even some adlibbed “Frozen” references that weren’t in the script as a cute little Olaf skipped across the stage. “I Think I’ve Got You Beat” was a strong scene for King and Kelle, who also had a lot of chemistry, as the song brought out their goofy side and characters’ true selves, showin things aren’t always as they seem on the surface. The farting and burping sound effects enhanced the comdedy.
Yue brought a wooden puppet to life with every jerky movement and facial expression. He even had an air-powered apparatus that made his nose grow longer. He maintained the high-pitched Pinocchio voice you would recognize from the movie, whether speaking or singing. And that’s not easy to do, given that producing that nasally voice required muscle strain to squeeze out the high pitch, which makes it harder to sing low notes that require more relaxed vocal chords.
Lee also voiced the high-pitched Gingy, whether concealed behind the torture cookie tray or on stage with a gingerbread man puppet as she played the Sugar Plumb Fairy. It was almost a moment of ventriloquism.
I was impressed by how mobile and energetic Rucci was on his knees for the whole show, made to look like the dwarfish Lord Farquaard. He was equipped with knee pads, which helped. Farquaard may be a Lord, but Rucci is the king of comedy in that role.
“Shrek” is a fantastic ensemble show, with many featured smaller parts that are necessary in depicting the fairy tale world.
Nightwing Whitehead did the costume designs, featuring an array of bright colors and cartoony styles — particularly in the Duloc dancers.
The makeup was also top notch. It adds a whole new element to quick changes when you also have to wash off makeup between scenes (particularly if it’s green!).
Linda Ferreira did the set and light design. This was a complicated set with a lot of moving pieces. The tower and castle were the most challenging to put together. At one moment there was an awkward, silent moment without music as we waited for the visible stage crew to lock the tower into place — which took us out of the story and into reality for a minute. But otherwise, the set was moved pretty fluidly.
There were a lot of neat effects, including Gingy spitting out “milk,” which looked like silly string when he is being tortured for information on Fiona’s whereabouts.
The high energy of the actors makes this show great for kids and adults will enjoy older humor that goes over children’s heads.
It wouldn’t be “Shrek” without “I’m a Believer,” so feel free to get up in your seat and dance your heart out if you want to at the end. Let your freak flags fly.
“Shrek” runs Nov. 7, 8, 13-15 and 20-22 with shows at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays and Saturday, Nov. 21. Tickets cost $29 for VIP and $24 for general seating. You can also buy ogre ears at will call and at the snack bar for $3 to get in the swampy spirit! For more information on the production and Little Theatre of Manchester, visit www.cheneyhall.org.