‘Shrek Jr.’ brings magic to BLT stage

Published 9:58 am Friday, June 26, 2015

In the opening scene of BLTeens’ production of “Shrek Jr.,” presented by Brookhaven Little Theatre Thursday night, a back story is established of the time when a young ogre named Shrek was sent away by his parents at the tender age of 7 to live in a dark and dingy swamp. Ogres are gross. They tend to be big, awkward and scary.

The problem with Shrek, the modern fairy tale hero, is that he is less scary than lovable. He is an oaf, yes, but an oaf with a heart. We really have Co-Lin student Emmett Johnson to thank for portraying Shrek so naturally and with such depth that we quickly forget about Johnson the actor and come to know only Shrek the star. Both his classic – dare we say “slapstick” – physicality and his musical acumen are framed prominently in this production.

Again (trying not to give too much away to those unfamiliar with the plot, but is there anyone out there who hasn’t seen the blockbuster franchise?), in this production an elaborately-costumed motley crew of fairy tale characters have been driven from the kingdom of Duloc, essentially because they are “freaks.” Pinocchio, their animated spokes-puppet, explains to Shrek why they have ended up in his swamp in a lively number featuring almost two dozen performers ranging in age from their early teens to their 20s. Shrek does not want these characters in his swamp, and decides that the best way to induce them to leave is to force Prince Farquaad, Duloc’s presumptive heir, to respect his homestead and take the miscreants back to Duloc.

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What is there to say about Lord Farquaad other than that he is hilariously portrayed by Daniel Clark, a talented actor whose mannerisms exemplify the grandiose aspirations of the Farquaad character as well as this noble lord’s own sad misgivings? Clark’s frequent mane-flipping and his fussy fidgeting seem to signify a dual sense of pride and shame. The character stands, after all, barely three feet tall. It is revealed in the end that all characters – noble or otherwise – have flaws and that no one is more or less a freak than anyone else.

A bargain is made with Lord Farquaad for Shrek to venture to rescue Princess Fiona, Farquaad’s destined bride, who is played through her various ages and incarnations by Abby Grace Matthews, Johanna Russell, Madeleine Meilstrup and Reagan Whittington.

The producers lavish their attention on costumes, choreography, scenic design, but we are not prepared for the arrival – through the audience, no less – of a dragon. Kudos go to the performers – Austin Brister, Caleb Smith (who also plays a very funny Pied Piper), Logan Cap, Brody Evans and Jon-Mark Mathis – who bring to vivid life one of the most remarkable props in this production. The dragon is energetically voiced by 17-year-old Shannon Pendleton. Likewise, the director clearly lavishes her attention on the performances of her talented young cast.

In Shrek’s tale, secrets are revealed. Plot twists hinge on those secrets, both spoken and unsaid. In this production, adeptly directed by Jana Fulda Russell and choreographed by Phoenix McKissack Neal and Shelley Griffith, there is as much for an adult to appreciate as a child. Who, after all, can’t laugh at a joke about flatulence?

Ultimately, “Shrek” is a lively amalgamation of the numerous Grimm fairy tales from­ the 19th century. And just as the Brothers Grimm came up with tales to teach moral lessons to young children then, this modern interpretation (while maybe addressing the way artists, dancers, singers and actors are treated in today’s culture) does teach us a new moral lesson – to appreciate diversity, individuality and the beauty in everyone.