New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley has a gigantic crush on Sutton Foster and we think it’s clouding his judgment. That’s only reason we can imagine that in the same review he would insist “Shrek, for the record, is not bad,” and then compare it to “a Christmas panto, one of those silly seasonal shows beloved in Britain and bearable because, like Santa Claus, they come around only once a year.” It gets worse: “That’s one parallel that came to my mind. The other, when I was feeling less charitable, was of seeing out-of-work actors dressed up as tacos and French fries in a mall food court.”
Not bad, huh?
Shrek the Musical, for the record, isn’t bad; it’s enjoyable, but not as good as the movie version. We saw it a few weeks ago in previews and as Brantley points out, this first show from DreamWorks Theatricals trumps similar cartoon-to-Broadway Disney fare such as Tarzan and The Little Mermaid. These productions all face a creative hurdle that Brantley points out: “the issue of performers having to dress up to resemble fantasy illustrations, a process that, to put it kindly, tends to cramp expressive acting.” He fails to recognize that his infatuation with Foster’s performance as Fiona — a character who, for the majority of the show has no costume limitations — might be a direct result of this.
Do we agree that Foster is, as he says, “a performer of eight-cylinder energy and eye-searing presence”? Sure, we loved her plucky heroines in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Women and The Drowsy Chaperone. She was fantastic when she guest starred on Flight of the Conchords. And we liked her a lot in this show, too. But may we suggest that while she has some fantastic numbers and can tap dance like nobody’s business, Brantley should really be saluting the actors who, in spite of a large green padded suit (Brian d’Arcy James) or faux diminutive stature (Christopher Sieber), manage to make us believe in them — if only for a few seconds.
Yes Brantley, “Fiona is fun. No wonder Shrek falls in love with her.” And it’s OK that you did, too. But you can’t give her all of the credit if you enjoyed this “leaden fairy-tale-theme costume party” in spite of yourself. It might be time to take a bit of your own advice and examine the substance versus surface of a show before you sit down to pen a review; “the hypertalented Ms. Foster” might be the pretty face who’s getting butts in the seats (including ours), but without solid performances from James or Sieber there wouldn’t be a show to stick around for.