Review: Rainbow Stage’s Shrek the Musical

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Carson Nattrass beltin’ the ogre blues. Image courtesy ChrisD.ca.

I’ve been going to Rainbow Stage since I was six years old. My first show was Big – The Musical. In the last few years, I’ve made a point of trying to catch their entire season. When I heard that they were going to perform Shrek, my first thought was: “That is a big show.”

I’d watched the pro-shot version of the Broadway show on Netflix, and it has got to be one of the largest shows of the last decade. Not only are there plethoras of costume changes, set pieces, cast members, and special effects, but there’s also knowing that you have to fill some of the theatre scene’s biggest shoes – Shrek was originally led by Brian D’Arcy James as the titular character and Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona.

But last night, I was reminded that nobody does big better than Rainbow. (I’m gonna stop saying that word now.)

I saw Ring of Fire, the first show Rainbow produced this year, and although I had a good time, it didn’t fulfill my theatre experience. I watched a group of talented musicians perform Johnny Cash songs, but it wasn’t a show. It felt more like a bio-concert. Rainbow’s done a few of these in the previous five seasons: joining Ring of Fire is also Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. I’m very aware that most of Winnipeg’s theatre season ticket holders are white-haired, but these bio-musicals are something I can experience by myself, listening to a CD and reading Wikipedia.

Shrek, on the other hand, gave me everything I could hope for in a theatre experience: wonderful actors, a moving story, a laugh every now and then, and performances that made me rise to my feet.

Carson Nattrass was an excellent Shrek, mainly because of his impeccable comedic timing, able to ad-lib and feel out the audience’s reactions. If a Shrek doesn’t know how to do this, the show could ultimately fall flat. The point of the show is to be able to make fun of itself, and Nattrass led by example.

Heather McGuigan was a perfect Princess Fiona, never missing a high-pitched note and never letting her male counterpart steal the spotlight when they had a scene together. The two are balanced in such a way that makes you see them as a pair from the moment they share their first scene together.

The only thing that took me out of the story was the microphone problems that seem to plague Rainbow Stage at every show I attend. Sometimes, I chalk it up to being there early in the run (like missing cues when I saw the preview of Les Mis last season). But this was the sixth (seventh?) performance of Shrek, and there were still mics too loud and young Shrek’s mic wasn’t turned on at all for his first (and longest) appearance at the beginning of the show. The mixing will always be an issue, thanks to its amphitheatre atmosphere, but it’s no excuse for why cues can’t be followed. It was so noticeable that audience members began chatting about it during the show.

When a movie (or book or other source) is made into a musical, I have to ask myself whether it was necessary to transfer it onto the stage. When Shrek was made fifteen years ago, the creators must have thought that a movie was the best medium for this story. Did it need to be lengthened and transformed into what it is now?

Ultimately, I wasn’t able to answer that question. I remember seeing Shrek in the theatre, but there were children there that night that may have been experiencing that story for the first time. People there who weren’t expecting the Donkey = ass jokes, and who don’t quote “you cut me real deep, Shrek” on a regular basis. Whether it was necessary or not might be irrelevant, because this show works. The magic of the story is perfect on stage, and the production values weren’t dimmed at all from the Great White Way. Rainbow Stage is certainly living up to their new mantra, “definitely Broadway, uniquely Winnipeg.”

Shrek the Musical runs at Rainbow Stage in Kildonan Park until August 31. You can get tickets at RainbowStage.ca.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Fighting Chance Productions’ American Idiot

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The cast of American Idiot. This looks suspiciously similar to my high school’s Grease cast photo.

Like every other person who was a teenager after the nineties, Green Day was part of the soundtrack of my angsty rebellious years (which, in my case, was mostly staying up later than my bedtime and wearing a lot of black). The album American Idiot has become a rite of passage in learning how to stick it to the man, and it also, ironically, skyrocketed Green Day into the commercial spotlight.

In 2009, the album was turned into a Broadway musical, using the music from the album, as well as selected tracks from Green Day’s next album, 21st Century Breakdown, as its soundtrack. It won a pair of Tonys (for best scenic design and best lighting design), but to be frank: the show itself is weak. It’s hard to make something out of nothing. There’s very little story, but someone desperately wanted to try to thread together unconnected songs until they made sense. The show begins with three best friends wanting to get out of their one-horse town (as every punk song ever describes): one gets his girlfriend pregnant and stays, one joins the army, and the last goes on a drug-fuelled romp through “The City,” finds the girl of his dreams, screws up the relationship, and comes back home. The protagonist never learns anything, no growth really occurs, and the audience is sort of lost trying to make sense of all the characters and how they weave together. It’s clear that the show was only open for a little over a year on Broadway because of its name.

But I digress. Fighting Chance is producing the western Canadian premiere of American Idiot, a feat they should be proud of. The young cast swings off of ladders and wheeled staircases (which, admittedly, distracted me as a former warehouse employee – none of the staircases were ever stabilized throughout the show and someone could have been seriously injured had they slipped) wearing rock n’ roll t-shirts and ripped jeans. This show definitely encapsulates the feeling of being young and only afraid of one thing: becoming your parents.

What impressed me most about this specific production was how multitalented the cast was – a number of times throughout the show, a character will stop to not only sing the song, but accompany themselves on guitar, drums, violin, or even the accordion. At the end, all of the cast came on stage to sing the friends-forever anthem “Time of Your Life,” all holding and playing (or at least, pretending to play) acoustic guitar.

Although the three leading men are the ones who get the most stage time, the real standouts were some of the ladies in the cast, specifically Allyson Fournier as the pregnant teen Heather and Tiana Swan as the Extraordinary Girl.

All in all, the show does a good job of reinterpreting its source material. This specific production is how the show should be seen: performed by kids full of piss and vinegar in a non-profit couple hundred seat theatre. If I had watched it in a multi-thousand Broadway house, I probably would have gagged at the irony.

American Idiot runs until August 27 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver. Fighting Chance is simultaneously performing Heathers: The Musical at the same theatre until August 26. You can get tickets for both here.