Talk about your franchises. First there was Shrek!, the 1990 children's book by William Steig. Considering the exclamation point, the 2001 film was inevitable. That was so successful (Best Animated Feature Oscar — oh yeah, and $267,652,016 at the box office) that seven years later came Shrek the Musical, so Broadway theatergoers would have something to bring their kids to.
FAIRY TALE FRIENDS Poost, Jordan, and Shivener.
The touring production is at Providence Performing Arts Center through January 13, and you don't have to have a tyke in tow to be admitted.
Even ogres can learn to love — that is the message for grown-ups. The bighearted production has music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet; Caroline, or Change) and, more importantly, a wisecracking book and lyrics by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose Rabbit Hole grabbed the drama Pulitzer in 2007.
The show's contemporary twist on traditional fairy tales is that the princess is not rescued by a square-jawed handsome prince but rather by our eponymous hero — lumbering, green, and easily mistaken for a monster. But our headstrong princess probably wouldn't put up with a valorous, self-impressed prince anyway, so all is well and good.
With the help of a chattering sidekick Donkey (André Jordan), her rescue also involves a menagerie of fairy tale characters, from Pinocchio to the Ugly Duckling, plus a 25-foot fire-breathing dragon, and an odious, diminutive villain.
We can't help being fond of Shrek (Lukas Poost) right away, since the story begins with him telling the audience all about his traumatic childhood. Banished on his seventh birthday, told by his parents that his ugly appearance will make people afraid of him, he grows into a suspicious misanthrope, living along in a swamp.
But company does start showing up, in the form of fairytale characters exiled by Lord Farquaad (Merritt David Janes) from the Kingdom of Duloc. Shrek values his privacy, so he sets off to complain to Farquaad, encouraged by the fairytale folk, who don't like his gruff company either. But he can't help but be helpful; that's his nature. So he soon ends up rescuing Donkey from Farquaad's nasty minions and reluctantly acquires an appreciative and talkative friend for life.
Meanwhile, a gingerbread man, Gingy (Schuyler Midgett), is not about to run anywhere, since he's being tortured by Farquaad to reveal the whereabouts of Princess Fiona (Liz Shivener), whom he must marry in order to become king. The evil lord commissions Shrek to rescue Fiona from a dragon-guarded castle, his reward being that he will again have his swamp to himself. Little does Shrek know that when Fiona was seven she dreamed of being rescued by a brave knight who will prove to be her one true love. Fate soon ensues.
What grown-ups have best to appreciate in all this silliness are the thumbs-up performances by the main characters. Poost is sweetly sympathetic as the big fella, Jones is hissingly hilarious as the villain (a regular-size actor shuffling about on his knees in a clever costume), and even Jordan as the donkey is entertainingly busy making an ass of himself. Most captivating of all is Shivener as the spunky Princess, winning our hearts with her sassy ways.