PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: Shrek the Musical, Re-Groomed Since Broadway, Gets High School Premiere
By Adam Hetrick
A group of Wisconsin high school students involved in the Kenosha Unified School District Theatre Arts program are making a Broadway connection this week with the high school premiere of the 2008 Broadway production Shrek the Musical.
Playbill.com takes a look at the production as part of our new PlaybillVIP.com Spotlight series. Organizations across the country can now create an authentic Playbill as part of this new venture.
Based on the William Steig book and the DreamWorks Animation Film, Shrek has music by Tony Award nominee Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change; Violet) and book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Good People).
The school production, which began performances Feb. 22 and concludes March 3 at Bradford High School, marks a new adventure in the life of Shrek, which has played London and a U.S. tour following its Broadway premiere. It ran for 478-performances at the Broadway Theatre.
Following Broadway, Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori continued to refine their work on the musical, which is now reflected in the licensed version from Music Theatre International. Audiences can also expect a Theatre for Young Audiences and Broadway JR version of Shrek in the near future.
"I think it happens a lot, historically – in your New York run – that you learn things and put them on tour," Tesori told Playbill.com. "You run out of time eventually in New York. You need to hand it over to your cast at some point and stop making them crazy."
She continued, "The great thing about DreamWorks was that they kept allowing us to learn and to take what we learned and put it into the next production. The tour wasn't like London, and what we learned from Seattle to New York, to the tour, to London, we've put into the published form of Shrek, which I'm really proud of. I think it's turned out to be a really great show."
Bradford High School students are currently putting Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire's efforts to the test. Shrek now has a new opening number, some fresh characters, and the role of the amorous Dragon, as well as her physical concept, have been re-imagined. The Dragon also gets a new song in the licensed production.
"It's the little things in musicals that have a big difference, as I've learned from George C. Wolfe," Tesori laughed. "There were a lot of adjustments we made to expand it, to let it breathe, to really define the moment throughout the piece."
The new opening number of Shrek marks a return to the tradition of Steig's book, according to Tesori. "We decided to make it really about the book and the storytelling," she said. "Like the voice-over in the movie that says, 'This is why we're here. This is what happened.' So therefore at the end, when Shrek says, 'And that's the story,' you've been led through by the lead character."
Tesori said she's encouraged to see individuals across the country taking on Shrek without the benefit of a lavish Broadway budget. "Money doesn't create anything, except that it adds to the idea. Funding is not an idea." She cites the critically-praised production of Good Person of Szechwan currently playing La MaMa in New York City. "It's just filled with ideas on a very limited budget. So, the currency is imagination," Tesori says.
Knowing that her work will live on past its Broadway run can be a guiding factor in her writing, Tesori adds. "Writing Shrek, I'm trying to imagine ways to do it. You could even do a Chinese dragon. All that you need is for the audience to invest in the idea of it. It doesn't really matter if it's with a toothpick or a winch."
To that end, the KUSD Theatre Arts production, which is bursting with imagination, is staged by Holly Stanfield and features costumes by Scott Frost and Kristen Singer, who are graduates of the Kenosha Unified School District. It has scenic designs by Jodi Williams.
Shrek director Stanfield told Playbill.com, "The students have taken a lot of ownership of the production. Our concept that uses trash from a city dumpster to create the story of Shrek has allowed our young actors and technicians to work freely and creatively with the material. It has been a crazy and wonderful process bringing the big green ogre to the stage." Students are also in charge of production and stage managment from the start of rehearsals through closing night.
While Shrek is a quest show, it is also a tale of judging a book by its cover, self-discovery, romance and friendship. These issues, while wrapped in a fantasy story, are relevant to everyone, especially high school students. Tesori points out, "When you look at Shrek, there's a decision that's been made just by looking at him – until the song happens. So in the silence, there's a story that's been created – then the lyric and the music defy the story that's been created in the past. There's a dissonance [between the expectation and the truth] - and that's what's great. You don't need latex for that..."
For the record, Jerron Baldwin, who plays Shrek in the KUSD Theatre Arts production, wears only a cleverly designed green hat with the ogre's signature ears atop it and a dash of some green make up.
Director Stanfield also spoke about her students' passion for Shrek. "Self-acceptance is a powerful theme in their lives. I think I can honestly say that there is a bit of Shrek in all of us," she said. "Shrek offers this lesson up in such an engaging way, that you walk out of the show laughing at your own frailty and remembering that you need to find value in every moment of your life. Our parents are selling stadium flags in the lobby that say 'Let Your Freak Flag Fly.' Last night during the encore the crowd was standing and waving their banners with abandon. Shrek is truly a celebration of our inner freak!"
Tesori, who recently Skyped with another school producing Shrek, said she feels a bond with the students who are inhabiting her work across the country. "I told them, 'We are very connected. What I do requires you.'"
Shrek runs through March 3. You can check out KUSD Theatre Arts' Playbill VIP here. Just like the Playbills found on and Off-Broadway and in numerous theatres across the country, the Playbill VIP contains billing features identical to those used by award-winning theatre professionals for decades.
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