Monday, September 19, 2016

Shrektacle, Shreplicated

Please note: Helsingin kaupunginteatteri offered me a free ticket to see their production of Shrek.

First things first: did you know Shrek, the 2001 Dreamworks animated hit with three sequels, is based on a book?

I sure didn't, but that's true! Shrek was originally written and illustrated by British author William Steig in 1990. The book tells the story of an ugly ogre who meets an even uglier princess and falls madly in love. There is no short-statured lord evicting fairytale creatures out of his kingdom, and the donkey doesn't talk much, but the basic framework of the story we know and love is all there. Who knew!

I learned this tidbit in the souvenir programme for Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's new production Shrek the Musical. So, let's now try to ignore how this fact has turned my world upside down and instead take a look at the show itself...

Shrek the Musical premiered on Broadway in 2008. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, I think it's a nice adaptation of the movie. It has all the jokes and scenes you remember from the film, but at the same time, it gives the characters new depth. Lord Farquaard's backstory is funny, and acceptance is always a good theme for a family show.

I think the musical's biggest problem is actually the original movie's amazing, effective soundtrack.

I mean ridiculously, absolutely ridiculously effective. The film's use of the song Hallelujah has ruined the Leonard Cohen classic and all its covers for me for good – ever since seeing the movie as a 9-year-old, Shrek has been the first thing I think of when hearing it, and I guess that's how it will be for the rest of my life. And I haven't even watched the movie since I turned 12.

I'm not saying they should've made it a jukebox musical, but it's a bit of a problem that none of Jeanine Tesori's songs are half as catchy as the tunes featured on the movie's soundtrack. The music is easy to listen to and easier to forget.

The musical's pacing is also uneven. The first act moves in fast forward, but when the second act starts, it turns out 80% of the plot has already been told and we enter the Ballad Zone. Luckily, after half an hour of stalling, the pace picks up again. In the end, if nothing groundbreaking, it's still a neat enough show.

And now, Shrek has arrived to Helsinki.

Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's take is not the first Finnish production of Shrek. Jyväskylän kaupunginteatteri called dibs in 2013. 22 000 audience members and three years later, the musical comes to the Finnish capital – again helmed by director Kari Arffman and featuring the very same dragon.

It's a mixed bag.

The characters are all charming. I had the luck of seeing understudy Raili Raitala in the role of Princess Fiona. If you didn't know better, you'd think you're watching the principal perform! Raitala is funny and brash with all the qualities a demure princess should not display... In other words, a perfect Fiona. Matti Leino's bubbly and all-around loveable Donkey is another favourite.

Petrus Kähkönen's Shrek is also a likeable creature, but amongst the other colourful characters, the titular ogre feels almost mundane. It's by no means Kähkönen's fault. It's just that when compared to his eccentric princess and his energetic sidekick, our hero, who mostly just wants to be treated with respect and then be left alone, is not all that enthralling. (Fun fact, though: Raitala and Kähkönen played Alfred and Sarah in a recent Finnish production of Tanz der Vampire. It was fun watching them play such a different sort of couple this time!)

Finally, thumbs up to Antti Timonen for walking, running and even dancing on his knees whole night long as the short and evil Lord Farquaard. His deliriously happy run to get the wedding preparations started was the highlight of the whole night for me!

So far, so good – but where I think the production stumbles is the stagecraft. It tries to be a replica of the big and expensive Broadway original and a much smaller production at the same time.

Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's big stage is currently under renovation. The replacement stage for musical productions, Peacock Theatre, has no space to store sets and minimal stage technology. So, instead of big setpieces and special effects, we get 2D sets, designed by Samuli Halla, and a rather puny dragon (the doll itself is neat, but the dragon's second appearance in the musical's climax... Quite underwhelming).

Taken a bit further and completely divorcing it from the movie, the flat approach could have given the show a nice illustrated storybook look. But as it is, it occupies a weird middle ground in between intentionally naïve and cheap-looking. Combined with costume design straight from Broadway... The combo doesn't quite work for me. It needs more oomph.

I's admirably ambitious for Helsingin kaupunginteatteri to produce Shrek on such a difficult stage. Ultimately, however, I don't know if it's a very good decision to cram a big fantasy musical in such a small space. I believe this fairytale world would have worked much better if the theatre had waited for a bit and produced it on their big stage.

So. The current Helsinki Shrek is an odd combination: a carbon copy of Broadway the original when it comes to costumes, a pocket-sized version when it comes to sets. But would it have been quite perfect if done big, either?

I have railed against replica productions before. I will rail against them again. If you ask me, replicas should never be made. Especially not if the original production is available on DVD and digital download, as is the case with the Broadway production of Shrek.

In a show like this, just a touch of local flavour could do wonders.

Shrek features a group of fairytale creatures who, in this replica form, all look decidedly American. There is, for example, an elf... which I only realised when the character introduced itself as one, since the elves of Finnish tradition do not look like that at all. Maybe Dreamworks Theatricals won't allow any changes, but I think it would be so much more fun if each creative team around the world could give at least the fairytale characters their own designs, drawing inspiration from the traditional stories of their respective countries.

Though actually, there is one local nod in the Finnish production: Mikko Paloniemi portrays Karlsson-on-the-Roof, an Astrid Lindgren character that's also well known in Finland. The 2013 Swedish production seems to have featured Nils Holgersson. Wonder if every production is allowed one local character?

I understand that in a musical based on an animated movie, making the world and characters look recognisable is important. At the same time, I find that approach very limiting. Luckily other projects have chosen a different route: the new musical based on the movie Anastasia shows us it's quite possible to base a musical on an animated feature and still have an unique look.

In short: in its replica form, Shrek a pretty nice musical – but how much more interesting it could be if creative teams all around the world were given free hands!

To finish off, I combined a little Youtube playlist of international Shrek the Musical trailers, starting from Helsinki. Take a look and try to spot the differences:

I wonder if it's a mandatory Dreamworks requirement to use the song I'm a Believer
 (the only song from the movie featured in the stage musical) in all promotional material?

Photos by Tapio Vanhatalo.


  1. Oh me oh my. I love Shrek, the first movie, and I still watch it now and then. Thus watching a musical version of it with a different soundtrack (it is catchy, the movie one I mean!) seems a bit odd. I'm almost thinking to see this just because of Antti Timonen (and maybe the dragon) but we'll see, there's so much that I really want to experience this fall that I just might let Shrek go on his merry, farty way.

    1. Please help. The phrase "his merry, farty way" is making me howl of laughter.

      But yeah, I don't think you'll miss too much if you skip this one. There's always the Broadway DVD to watch, after all...