Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This poignant axiom is as old as time itself, or at least Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimm brothers or Aesop.
And South Carolina Children’s Theatre adds another message to the fairy tale morality canon in its first MainStage production of the season “Shrek: The Musical.” It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to a “freak.”
Starring a trio of grown-up actors who all launched their theatre careers as youth in this company, “Shrek” is a gorgeously executed production directed by Betsy Bisson with pristine scenic design by Will Ragland. Menacing vines snake up and around two prosceniums, while a castle, tower and the swamp take center stage in this twisted take on fairy tale heroes based on the DreamWorks animated film.
With a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, “Shrek” also stars Ragland as a lonely ogre who lives in a swamp of the outskirts of Duloc.
Steadfastly upbeat and funny, Ragland maintains his Mike Meyers’ Scottish accent without fail, as Shrek’s “home” is invaded by a merry band of exiled fairy tale characters such as Pinocchio (Cameron Woodson in a standout turn), the Wicked Witch (SCCT regular Cindy Mixon) and Mama Bear from “Goldilocks” (Katie Halstengard) and many, many other rejects and misunderstood characters, as displayed in one of the show’s finest numbers, “Story of My Life.”
Accompanied by Donkey (Manny Houston in a rambunctious and spirited display), Shrek sees the height-challenged Prince of Duloc, Lord Farquaad (played deliciously by Austin Smith), and accepts the mission of rescuing a princess from a tower guarded by a dragon and surrounded by molten lava.
This feat is not a problem for a big, green scary Ogre like Shrek. But what he doesn’t count on is falling in love with the aforementioned Princess Fiona, Carly Stelling at her most irreverent and comedic best. I last saw her in “Seussical” and she is even more amazing in this show in songs like “This is How Dreams Come True” and the fresh as the morning dew “Morning Person” when her voice climbs an octave high enough to make a bird explode.
Fiona is fierce and has a secret – at sundown she turns into an ogre herself due to a curse that can only be lifted when she kisses her one true love. And in their travels back to Duloc, no scene is more fun than Shrek and Fiona in a farting contest. And the sound designer for this show (uncredited) found some really gross, squishy sound effects that seemed to delight the kids and adults alike in the audience.
This production is first-rate not only with the impressive cast, but also the look and feel: incredibly detailed “stone” work and scenic painting, Todd Wren’s effective mood lighting, of course with loads of green hues; Costumes by Ryan Bradburn, Puppets by Bradburn and Kim Granner, and choreography by Lauren Imhoff and music direction by Houston himself.
Bisson’s “Shrek” also features a unique and fantastic cameo by none other than Upstate actor/singer DeAna Earl as the soul of the Dragon that guards the tower. In this scene, a Dragon Puppet, operated by four young actors delicately pounces into the main action as the lights go up onto the left side stage to reveal the gorgeous Earl decked out in a red sequined chanteuse gown and crooning her magnificent version of “Forever” that blew me away. Brava, Ms. Earl, and Ms. Bisson for this clever direction.
“Shrek”continues through Sept. 23 at the Peace Center Gunter Theatre. Tickets are available at scchildrenstheatre.org.