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Theater preview: 'Shrek the Musical' gleefully skewers Disney storybook tales

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 1:15 p.m. MST

Perry Sook as Shrek sings "Big, Bright, Beautiful World" in "Shrek the Musical."

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Once upon a time in a land not so far, far away — history was made. “Shrek” was the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and “Shrek the Musical” became DreamWorks’ first Broadway stage venture.

Much of the appeal of “Shrek” comes from the gleeful deconstruction of all things Disney. The adaptation of a lesser known children’s book skewers Pinocchio, Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs, along with other storybook characters from the Magic Kingdom that Walt built. When seven dwarfs lug a comatose Snow White into Shrek’s kitchen, the big, green, swamp-dwelling ogre insists, “Oh, no no no no. Dead broad off the table!”

Ironically enough, both versions of the book written by famed New Yorker cartoonist William Steig were shepherded by Jeffrey Katzenberg. Ironic because Katzenberg was chairman of Walt Disney Studios when it produced blockbuster animated films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” But this was before he jumped ship to create DreamWorks Animation in 1994, partnering with Steven Spielberg and music mogul David Geffen.

Katzenberg was also studio chief at Disney when “Beauty and the Beast” went to Broadway, where he learned to translate the worlds of animation and fantasy to the theater and how to adapt a familiar property into something that feels fresh.

How well did he succeed with “Shrek the Musical” when compared to Disney’s stage musicals?

At its Broadway opening in December 2008, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that “‘Shrek’ is … definitely a cut above the most recent offerings from its creators’ direct competitor in cartoon-inspired musicals, Walt Disney.”

With a budget estimated as high as $25 million, “Shrek the Musical” garnered eight Tony Award nominations including Best Musical, enjoyed a New York City run of 13 months and was ranked as one of the year's highest-grossing musicals.

In a genius creative stroke, Katzenberg hired Tony winner Rob Ashford as the show’s co-director. Ashford’s Broadway credits include “Thoroughly Modern Mille” and the revivals of “Promises, Promises” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

“Everyone was concerned with bringing the film’s subversive nature and magical moments to the stage,” Ashford told reporters during the musical’s development process. “But we came to see we could use a different set of tools. As long as we were delivering the same emotional effect as the film we didn’t need to do it exactly the same way.”

In the end, he said, “What works best are the moments that feel more like a pop-up storybook and less like a wild ride. Moments of heart and humor that make the audience want to come on board with these characters and follow them on their journey.”

Unlike other animated movies made into musicals, “Shrek” the movie didn’t have hit songs. David Lindsay-Abaire (“High Fidelity,” “Rabbit Hole”) is the writer-lyricist and Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) is the composer.

A final note of irony is the source of the lovable ogre’s name. Consult a Yiddish dictionary and you will learn that “shrek” is a word for fear or terror.

If you go

What: “Shrek the Musical”

Where: Capitol Theatre

When: Feb. 26-March 3

How much: $62.50-$32.50

Tickets: 801-355-2787 or Arttix.org

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