Strolling down the aisle at North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) in-the-round,theatergoers are thrust into a moss-hanging, cricket-frog chirping swamp. The atmosphere is mysterious, yet magical (kudos, set designer Nathan Bertone).
Welcome to the fantasy-filled world of “Shrek!,” David Lindsay Abaire’s musical stage adaptation of the popular 2001 Dreamworks film, and William Steig’s 1990 best-selling, short children’s book. Although this delightful version is geared to youngsters and young-at-heart, it’s a two-act, fun-filled trek to the world of storybook and contrived characters, who sing, dance, stalk, prance, spout and march among us, sweeping us into their silly, fanciful world.
It also has something for all generations, including Boston-area shtick, and double-entendre dialogue adults appreciate.
Besides bewitching us with a comical, chatty Donkey (lively Dwayne Clark); an ogre (delightful Lukas Poost, who also portrayed Shrek in the Broadway touring production); a witch-enchanted, feisty princess-by-day-ogress-by-night (talented Lauren Wiley); and several fairytale characters, like Pinocchio, the three bears, the three pigs, three blind mice, the gingerbread man, the big, bad, granny-eating wolf, the witch, two fairies, the ugly duckling, and more, Abaire tosses in serious life messages.
Between the lighthearted, upbeat song-and-dance numbers, and eye-popping effects, Director Michael Heitzman punctuates Abaire’s slogans: Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be different. Do your own thing. Be proud of who you are. In this fractured tale, villain Lord Farquaad “cleaned out” his little town of Duloc, by banishing a menagerie of misfits to the swamp, Shrek’s lonely realm, where he’s lived since his seventh birthday. His parents protectively sent him away, singing, “It’s A Big Bright, Beautiful World” - but not for you.
To restore his sanctuary, Shrek and new friend, Donkey, agree to rescue Princess Fiona from her dragon-protected tower, so Farquaad can marry her and become a real king, with a queen.
But Shrek isn’t Fiona’s idealistic rescuer - a knight in shining armor or handsome prince. It’s okay, though. She’s free. She’ll be released from her spell with love’s first kiss.
Fiona’s evoluton from child (Haven Pereira, 10, of Winthrop) to teen-ager (Miranda Gelch) to adult (Wiley), in song, “I Know It’s Today,” is touching. But her courtship with Shrek isn’t. They engage in a gross-out contest, singing “I Think I Got You Beat,” delighting kids with their farting and burping. They’re cozier later, in song, “When Words Fail’.
Spoiler alert - the ending isn’t your typical romantic, happily-ever-after, but it’s a festive celebration anyhow. Parents with little ones can rest assured this cartoonish version isn’t scary. Farquaad is a little Napoleonic tyrant, who tosses his black page boy tresses, and struts around, authoritatively on his short legs, but reveals his lowly past in “The Ballad of Farquaad”. Australian import Benjamin Howes, (who appeared in Broadway’s “Shrek!” and NSMT’s “A Christmas Carol” and “The Little Mermaid,”), unleashes his marvelous voice and hilarious acting chops, walking on his knees, while maneuvering his puppet-like faux legs. Even the frightful, fire-breathing dragon is a personified black and purple, long-tailed female (Jacqueline Arnold), who wants to be loved, not feared. She set her sights on Donkey, whom townsfolk consider a freak of nature, because he can talk.
We kinda wish Dragon were more imposing and blustery, but her terror is spectacularly achieved by Timothy Schmidt’s sound and Dan Efros’ lighting effects.
Also, Music Director Michael Gacetta and Co. and choreographer Mara Newbery Greer keep the pace lively, making believers of us all.
BOX INFO:Family-friendly, Tony Award-winning, two-act, musical play, book, lyrics by David Lindsay Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori, appearing at the North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT), 62 Dunham Road, Beverly, through July 19. Performances:Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; matinees, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, at 2 p.m. Check for related events. Tickets, $54-$79; youths 18-under, save 50 percent on Family Friday, July 17, at 8 p.m. Call 978-232-7200, visit www.nsmt.org, or the Box Office.