No doubt you've encountered this cranky critter before — in any one of three animated feature films which have been DreamWorks goldmines. This is his first outing as a Broadway musical-comedy star, and there was a lot of wearing of the green among the first-nighters to make him feel relatively at home in the big city.
'Tis true. One of Broadway's better-looking leading men lurks in that hulking fat-suit, slathered down in green slime from dome to toe so that all that remains of James is his smile, teeth, eyes and eyebrows. Happily, the first and the last are rather identifiable, if not trademarks, by now, and they give you something to go on.
"This is the first time I've done a show where my eyebrows have been an asset," cracked the affable, unflappable James. "Usually, costume designers and makeup designers run in fear when they see the two tiny patches of land-mass that are above my eyes. It is an extraordinary opportunity to work on a true character. It's not every day that you get to try to figure out how an ogre walks or breathes or talks. Obviously, there's a template for what Mike Myers did in the movies, brilliantly — but this is a three-dimensional version so there's great liberty and opportunity to fill in the blanks that you would have in a live version of the story."
Clearly, the actor sees the glass half-full. "Well, I'll tell ya, I think it's a great combination of brilliant design, which allows me to kind of experiment and control what I have to offer as a person, but mostly what's happening is a really great synthesis of design and actor, which is what you hope for in a situation like this." Sutton Foster, a comedic live-wire sending out sparks in all directions, is Fiona, the distressed, depressed damsel whom he rescues from 20 years of ivory-tower confinement. She's a bona fide princess — or, more precisely, princess by day, ogre by night — which makes her an ideal love interest. But it must irk James, after his time in the makeup chair, that she can go green in 55 seconds flat! "I can't reveal the secret, but it's cool," Foster said, fending off the obvious question every time it came up. "I feel so proud to be in this. It's a great meeting of material — and a great part."
Shrek asks the question, "Can an outcast ogre who offends all five senses find true love?" and answers it with a resounding "It's possible." As DreamWorks dollars keep the kids' eyes dancing with earthly delights, the old message of not judging a book by its cover is subliminally slipped in — healthy food-for-thought for the small-fry.
The musical's plot most faithfully follows the first film. Lord Farquaad, a sawed-off despot and the seed of one of the seven dwarfs (Grumpy, wouldn't ya know), needs to marry an authentic princess to become official King of Duloc so he enlists the aid of the brutish and smelly Shrek by promising to take back all the storybook characters he has driven out of Duloc and onto Shrek's swampy reserve. (The iconic fairytale folk got introduced in the second film but, following a Wicked rule of thumb, got used to color-up the musical.) On the way to delivering the freshly freed Fiona, she and Shrek fall in love, in their fashion (a fart-and-burp contest, set to music).
The posh and renovated Plaza Hotel admits ogres these days — maybe not to the honeymoon suite a la Barefoot in the Park but to the grand ballroom where the after-party was held. Strangely — very strangely among all that gold-leaf splendor — some of the hallways seemed Shrek-scented, as if a foul-smelling ogre had recently passed. One waiter blamed the odor on the candles; another on the new paint job.
A press area was set up in the lobby, and stars were interviewed as they arrived. Man of the hour was Christopher Sieber, who plays Farquaad on his knees and parades little puppet legs. It's a superb design effect, hilariously executed by Sieber, but you can't help but feel his post-show pain. "No, it's actually fine," he assured sympathetic inquirers. "It's the rest of the body that hurts — it's like shoulders and the back and the upper back, but the knees are fine. I'm very happy with what the end result is. It was a long haul to get here. It was nonstop, and things changed every day — and to finally, actually, have a performance and a show that is ours and we can be proud of it, is fantastic. I'm happy that the response to the show has been so great."
All that, and he loves the character. "He's so evil. You can go as far as you want with that. You really can. That's what the director, Jason Moore, was telling me. It's, like, 'Go ahead. Go as far as you want.' I stopped that in myself. I kept bringing myself back, and they kept saying, 'Go farther.' All of the creators gave me something to work with. I just added things here and there to see if that would fly, never commenting on the material because the writing and the music is funny enough. I would just add little things here and there, and before you know it they're in the show. I'm very blessed to have that. They let me do that."
Shrek's sidekick on his adventures is a donkey, called Donkey, played by Daniel Breaker with Eddie Murphy inflections. "Actually," he said, "I never saw the movies. Zero research. Somebody said the other day, 'You do a really good Eddie Murphy from 'Shrek.' I said, 'I'm not doing Eddie Murphy from 'Shrek.' I'm doing Eddie Murphy from 'Trading Places.' That's a very different Eddie Murphy."
He comes with adjustable donkey ears. "We have two types of ears. We have stationary ears. They're called stationary, but they're floppy. They're nicknamed Jasmin, those ears. And then we have the electronic ears that are also floppy but the lovely Aymee Garcia, who plays Mama Bear, operates them at key moments in the show. She is magnificent because she extends the donkey character, and those electronic ears are named Johnny Five. Important information. I haven't told anybody that."
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John Tartaglia, a Tony-nominated puppeteer from Avenue Q, finds himself now in the odd position of turning into a puppet. "When I got this show," he said, "a friend of mine told me, 'Oh my God! You're playing Pinocchio. Johnny, that's so ironic.' I said, 'What do you mean?' Finally, she said, 'You're a puppeteer and an actor, and you're playing a puppet.' It is kinda funny, like a karma payback for all the times I've used the puppet. Now, I get to play one." He also doubles as The Magic Mirror who converses with Farquaad from time to time. "I had a friend come the other night who said, 'Oh, it's such shame you only do those two moments in the show.' But I'm doing something the whole show because I do The Magic Mirror, who's live every night. He's not recorded. It's actually a live motion-capture animation system. As soon as I'm done with Pinocchio and his friends, I run up five flights, and I sit in front of a bank of computers and cameras that record my face digitally. They put these things in my face. I get to come on and just be an idiot, and kinda steal that one song, so I love it. I have a blast."
TV's "Ugly Betty," now shooting in New York, came out big-time to support the glamour-challenged lead with its opening-night star-drop (America Ferrera, Michael Urie, Judith Light and Mark Indelicato). The subliminal message woven into the show's fairytale fabric — a cry for tolerance for the outsider among us — was not lost on Light, a longtime AIDS activist: "You know how so many people are considered 'the other,' how we feel about them, how we shove them aside. I think the show's a real metaphor right now, with the way things have gone in California with Proposition 8 and what we tend to do with our amazing gay community. It's like how people hold them as 'the other.' What we see in this show is an incredibly loving ogre who has all these dreams, just like everybody else. We're all the same."
There was also a modest pocket of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who turned out to prove to Rabbit Hole's David Lindsay-Abaire that it's all right to write big Broadway musicals. For starters, there was I Am My Own Wife's Doug Wright, who is currently represented on the Main Stem with The Little Mermaid and spreading his newfound musical bent to other mediums. "I got a screenplay that's due on Friday," he announced. "It's about the life of George Gershwin — actually just the two years he was working on Porgy and Bess, and it talks about race and popular culture of that time. It has a shocking and original title right now . . . 'Gershwin.'"
"I have a feeling that the Pulitzer is linked directly to my influence, but that might just be me," cracked Tesori when quizzed about her favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith. Lindsay-Abaire was already deeply steeped in green, she pointed out, when his Pulitzer came in. "David and I write really quickly. We like to try a lot of things out so that's why we wrote so much. Also, I get it wrong a lot the first time."
|photos by Aubrey Reuben|
You Pulitzer hopefuls out there might as well know that she has already settled on her next collaborator: Well's Lisa Kron. "We're doing something that's an adaptation. I'm not allowed to say the title yet. We start to work in January. It's being produced by David Stone, and it's being directed by Joe Mantello." After four years of composing Shrek ditties, she's dry-eyed about reaching the finish line. "Y'know, I've taken all the green out of everywhere in my house, including the green crayons. I know everybody should go green, but I'm through with green now." Marylouise Burke, who collected a 2000 Drama Desk Award for Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers, formed her own one-woman cheering section. Next on her professional docket is The Savannah Disputation, which director Walter Bobbie starts rehearsing in January with Dana Ivey and Reed Birney. She said she made a point to catch Birney in his big Off-Broadway hit, Sarah Kane's brutalizing Blasted in which he pretty much endures on stage six times a week the tortures of the damned through Dec. 21. "When I met him afterward, I said, 'You owe me a Noel Coward!'"
Burke's constant escort since their Is He Dead? — twice-Tonyed costumer Martin Pakledinaz — admitted he's blissfully bi-coastal these days: "On the West Coast, I get to do Stormy Weather with Leslie Uggams and Nikki Crawford both playing Lena Horne and Dee Hoty playing Kay Thompson. On this coast, I get to do Blithe Spirit. There are a couple of leading ladies worth dressing there." (More than that, Marty: Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson and Deborah Rush.)
"It was a long, difficult process," Lindsay-Abaire said wearily at journey's end. "I think the most difficult thing was figuring out how to balance what people came in with, with what we wanted to put into it, finding our own voice in there, finding our way into it and not just replicating the movie. DreamWorks wasn't interested in replicating the movie, nor were we. We wanted to be true to the movie, and we didn't want to alienate people who liked the movie. There's a lot of stuff from the movie, of course — but we wanted to find a musical way of expressing the story. At this point, I don't even know where one ends and the other begins. It's all blended together."
His next project won't have a musical note in it: "MTC has commissioned me to write a new play, and I've just started writing it. I don't even have a title for it right now."
Hunter Foster, momentarily escaping his Westside Theatre Dust, was profoundly hard-pressed to pick a favorite performer of the evening. "Ooooooh, that's tough. I'll get in trouble either way." (On one hand, sister Sutton is the heroine; on the other, wife Jennifer Cody is the shoemaker's elf. "Brian d'Arcy James," he copped out.
John Scherer, who did Dad to Cody's Junie B. Jones, had no such divided loyalties. He said he was between gigs at the moment, coming from a Stuart Ross-revised-and-directed Silk Stockings and going to play The Foreigner at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
Cody, a pint-sized sparkplug and BC/EFA's perverse poster child (the tart-tongued truth-teller, "Little Sally"), is one of those seasoned showoffs who comprised the chorus line of storybook stalwarts (Three Little Pigs, Three Blind Mice, Humpty Dumpty, The Pied Piper, The White Rabbit). "It's like the Rolls Royce ensemble," she said of the line-up. "They hired the actors before they picked what we would do. We all sat in a room for nine weeks and made our characters, and they wrote the show after we created who we were. I came with the whole idea that the elf wanted to be a Christmas elf and didn't make it because she had bad eyesight and asthma. They wrote all that into the script. I look at all the little notations in the script and think, 'Everyone who plays this part is going to have to play her neurotic and nervous.'"
This wasn't an overnight production. Said Cody, "It has been a long time getting it up. We've been working on it for a year and a half now, so it feels good to finally let it go and say, 'We're done. It's done.' It's a show that breathes. At one point, we had a lot of extra numbers. Now, they try to tell the real story, which is actually just 'Shrek.'" Greg Kotis, the Tony-winning lyricist and book-writer of Urinetown, treated his clan to an opening night of Shrek on their night off from The Truth About Santa at the Kraine Theatre. He has concocted a holiday charmer for the whole family — yours and his. It stars him, wife Ayun Halliday and their Milo, 8, and India, 11. "It's sorta like I'm not a carpenter so I can't teach them how to build a house or anything, but this is as close as I can get to teaching them what I do and what we do," offered the writer. "They wanted to do it so we thought, 'Well, okay, we'll give it a try.' It's just a very limited run — 15 shows. We have five more left, Wednesday through Saturday."
Jessica Molaskey brought her daughter, Madeleine Pizzarelli, to Shrek while father John is down in Washington doing a gig. "It was really fun," critiqued Maddie sagely.
Cameron Diaz, who supplied the voice of Princess Fiona in all three "Shrek" flicks, was the only movie cast member physically present for the premiere — although Julie Andrews, who played her queenly mum in "2" and "3," delivered the cellphone admonition at the show's start in pearl-like tones practically perfect in every way.
Among the Shrek celebrants were Ben Stiller, Phylicia Rashad, Kathie Lee Gifford, Billy Elliot's Haydn Gwynne, Bobby Cannavale, Jerry Dixon and Mario Cantone, Rosie Perez, Christine Ebersole, Joan Rivers, Tony winner Randy Graff (who's wedded to the show's music director, Tim Weil), Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Claudia Shear, producer Paul Lucas, The Fantasticks' Ric Ryder, Harvey Evans, Caroline, or Change director George C. Wolfe, Amanda Green, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Dick Scanlan (who wrote the book and lyrics for Tesori's — and Foster's — Thoroughly Modern Millie), Tracie Thoms, John Gallagher Jr., People's Jess Cagle, Joan Rivers, Pirate Queen 9-to-5er Stephanie J. Block, Beth Leavel, Amy Ryan and even a flying monkey from Wicked, Reed Kelly.