Brian d'Arcy James has jet-black hair that really waves and an easy grin-going-to-smile that can light up a warehouse — he is considered, in certain quarters, tolerably handsome — so you may understand why he was taken aback when DreamWorks Theatricals told him exactly what role they had in mind for him in Shrek the Musical: the title one. The green slimmer himself — grungy, grouchy, pot-bellied and bald — has trumpetlike ears and a short fuse for all who trespass on his smelly old swampland.
"When I was told I was being considered for this, I really couldn't believe it," the actor admits. "I thought I was being considered for another part, and when it was made clear it was for the role of Shrek, it made me stop for a second — not because I was fearful of pursuing it but because I just couldn't understand how that could take place, that I would be considered for this role." Then, director Jason Moore stepped up to the plate and, with his designers for backup, explained how. Like the good heart lurking beneath Shrek's off-putting exterior, it's all about depth vs. illusion.
William Steig's short 1990 children's book and the three DreamWorks animated films it inspired contain life lessons, sugarcoated and camouflaged as a medieval fairy tale. The Shrek trek is a bumpy ride to self-esteem, appropriate for young and old alike, and the musical David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori have made of this material demonstrates how surface values upstage and overturn soul goals.
"I feel so lucky to be that guy to have the chance to do this," says James. "As my character says, 'We're misunderstood. Ogres have layers. Ogres have more going on than pillaging and eating children and smelling bad.' That's the quality of this character I love. There's more dimension to him than people perceive, so the story being told is, basically, 'Don't judge a book by its cover.' And he [Shrek] is at every point, to the best of his abilities, trying to educate people to that. What's great about it is that, at the end, he is given the encouragement and the courage to go out on a limb and ask for love and ask for friendship — and he finds out that's okay, that he deserves it. "It's easy to cast this as a fairy-tale book because it has all the familiar underpinnings of that. There's a lot of stuff on the top that makes people laugh and makes them thrilled with the design — but the story in and of itself is so potent. The truth of the story being told is about wanting to find, and being able to find, love. If that's not the most resonant story for an audience there is, I don't know what is."
For Shrek, love comes in the form of Fiona (Sutton Foster), a princess feisty but fairly inaccessible, confined to her room in the tower for 20 years with a fire-breathing dragon outside her door to discourage would-be rescuers. "She's not your typical princess," concedes Foster. "She desperately wants to be a princess and to fit in to all those typical roles, but she also wants to hike up her skirt and do some kung fu and belch and fart. She's just a little off, which is always fun to play. I'm off."
Shrek's friendship comes from a wisecracking sidekick, one Donkey (Daniel Breaker) — an ass with sass, as it were — and together they defy the dragon to fetch Fiona for marriage to a sawed-off mucky muck, Lord Farquaad (played, on his knees, by six-foot-two Christopher Sieber). Breaker hasn't seen the movie(s) and won't: "I think I'm going to wing it. I don't want to be limited to Eddie Murphy's portrayal of Donkey."
Farquaad, according to his creator, is one part Frasier Crane, one part Hannibal Lecter and one part John Lithgow, who originated the role in the animated film. "I saw the movie several times," says Sieber. "I think it's the first time an animation movie with the fairy-tale creatures we grew up with skewed all of that — not necessarily to make fun of them but to ask, 'What would these characters be like in real life?' 'Shrek' was the first movie to come along and ask that."
For local color, the show is littered with displaced fairy-tale creatures — Peter Pan, the Three Little Pigs, the Sugar Plum Fairy, et al — led by Pinocchio (a fey, falsetto-lunged firebrand, as played by John Tartaglia). "We're kinda the catalyst," offers Tartaglia. "Lord Farquaad drives the fairy-tale creatures from his kingdom into the swamp where Shrek lives. To get us off his land, Shrek agrees to be Farquaad's knight and save Fiona. At the end of the show, we realize that we have this power, and we need to stand up for who we are. Why are we waiting for someone to rescue us? We can do it ourselves, because we're proud of who we are.
"My own story is all about learning to accept the fact that I'm this wooden boy, made of wood, who's never going to be a real boy — just a puppet, and all the freaky things that go with it. I have to learn to love myself — that's the theme of the whole show."
Tartaglia's puppeteering in Avenue Q prepared him well for Pinocchio's physicality. A gal-pal pointed out the irony of all this: "I have been a puppeteer for so long that I've actually turned into a puppet — just like Michael Redgrave in 'Dead of Night.'"