Director/choreographer Christina Myatt nails the humor and heart of the story in Countryside Community Theatre's Shrek: The Musical, borrowing sparingly from the Broadway show's original directors, Jason Moore and Rob Ashford, without copying their achievement. Myatt's personal mark on the material is most clear in her choreography, especially in the rousing, showy "What's Up, Duloc?", with its Broadway-style kick-lines, and the subtly innocent "I Know It's Today," which involves Princess Fiona at three different ages (played, from youngest to oldest, by Ali Girsch, Emily Baker, and Melissa Anderson Clark). Yet while funny and full of energy, Myatt's Shrek also hits the right notes in its heartfelt moments, during which Myatt's pacing allows some welcome breathing room. And it also doesn't hurt that the musical, with its book by David Lindsay-Abaire and its memorably singable songs by Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, is a whole lot of fun.
That fun, however, was marred by a major issue with Friday's performance: the sound. Sound issues, from consistently missed microphone cues to over-modulated sound quality, have long plagued Countryside, and I'd hoped a change of venue (from the organization's usual performance space at North Scott High School) would correct that. Unfortunately, the sound coming through the speakers in the Bettendorf High auditorium was so muddled that I had trouble understanding much of the dialogue. The natural acoustics of the space and/or the main characters' personal mics also competed with the sound from the floor mics, creating a slight but annoying echo. The musical accompaniment, which is pre-recorded, was also too loud, and oftentimes overpowered the singers. These auditory issues barely avoided ruining the experience of what is otherwise a laudable performance.
Brian Peterson takes on the iconic lead role with "costume 'head' artist" Max McInnis responsible for his impressively-formed headpiece that creates the creature's well-known silhouette. Shrek fans will likely be pleased with Peterson given his use of the ogre's familiar Scottish accent to deliver fart jokes and humorous acerbity. He's fantastic in the part, expressive from head to toe, and possessing a beautiful singing voice.
However, while Peterson's boisterous beast is believable and entertaining, nowhere is his skill as an actor on better display than in the song "When Words Fail." After saving Fiona from a dragon-protected tower, Shrek contemplates how to tell the princess that he loves her. The song's verses are a practiced conversation Shrek has with an imagined Fiona, in which his extemporaneous dialogue takes him to hilarious places. Its chorus, however, is a sincere realization that he's unlikely to communicate his feelings clearly through words. Peterson hits these turn-on-a-dime emotional changes notably well, repeatedly going from amusing awkwardness to moving heartache within a measure or two of music.
Anderson Clark brings her familiar earnestness to Fiona, and radiates a joy appropriate to the fun-filled fairy tale. Matthew Dirschel, however, almost steals the show as the full-of-flair Lord Farquaad. This short but sassy sovereign earned thunderous applause during Friday's presentation, particularly delighting the audience with his dance steps that were all performed on his knees to accommodate the costume designed to make him shorter, with Farquaad's "feet" at Dirschel's kneecaps. Matthew McFate's Donkey, meanwhile, matches Farquaad's effeminacy and enjoyability, but with more strut than superiority in his demeanor. In truth, the actor copies Daniel Breaker's original Broadway depiction of Shrek's companion, but this is (somewhat) forgivable given the charm with which McFate plays the part.
What's also fun about Countryside's production is the cast of characters that make up the chorus, including the Three Little Pigs (Joe Lasher, Josh Schwirtz, and John McAtee), the Three Blind Mice (Shelley LaMar, Hanna Murray, and JoAnna Mills), the Sugar Plum Fairy (Ashley Crouch), and the Big Bad Wolf (Brant Peitersen). The standouts, though, are Spencer Clark's endearing, nasally, head-voiced Pinocchio and Joe Oliger's smart-mouthed, over-confident Gingerbread Man, which he voices while various other actors control a puppet on a cookie sheet.
The dragon is also a wonder. Voiced by Elise Castro, the design is a full body split into three parts - a head, a midsection, and a tail - with each part attached to a pole and "flown" around the stage by handlers. Unfortunately, its mouth does not move, and Myatt choreographs the dragon's big scene to have the beast basically just move from one side of the stage to the other in figure eights, rendering the visual aspects of the soulful song "Forever" as rather boring - although it's also the only bit of uninspired choreography in Myatt's production.
Otherwise, Countryside Community Theatre's Shrek: The Musical, including its costumes and set pieces, is a marvel to behold, and one of the more polished productions I've yet seen from the group. Hopefully, its crew is also able to overcome Friday's significant sound issues so that future audiences can better enjoy the company's impressive staging.
Shrek: The Musical runs at Bettendorf High School (3333 18th Street, Bettendorf) through July 20, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)285-6228 or visiting CCTOnStage.org.