Wheelock’s Shrek lets its Freak Flag Fly with a Positive Message of Acceptance (4.5 Stars)

*SHREK the MUSICAL – Book and Lyrics by David Lindsay Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the Dreamworks Animation Motion Picture and the book by William Steig. Directed by Shelley Bolman. Musical Direction by Matthew Stern. Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 Riverway, Boston, through May 24.*

According to Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green,” which is certainly true for Shrek, the self-proclaimed “big, ugly, stupid ogre,” whose less than positive encounters with humans brandishing torches and pitch forks leave him only wanting to be left alone. When a horde of Fairy Tale “freaks” are banished to Shrek’s swamp by Lord Farquaad, Duloc’s biggest (smallest?) freak of all, Shrek is forced to leave his comfort zone and embark on a quest to bring a princess to Lord Farquaad in exchange for sole possession of his swamp.

As with many a fairy tale quest, Shrek finds more than he bargained for: an annoying yet persistent Donkey who becomes his best friend and Fiona, his soul mate. Most of all he finds that he despite his outward appearance he is deserving of love, friendship, and happiness.

Christopher Chew’s rich and beautiful baritone and strong acting manifest the sensitivity and range of emotion necessary to reveal Shrek’s struggle to break free from his need to protect himself from the outside world. Particularly poignant is “When Words Fail” in which he rehearses declaring his love to Fiona.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s Donkey performs with verve and considerable physicality. Highlights include rocking out with the Three Blind Mice as he exhorts Shrek to “Make a Move” on Fiona and pleading for Shrek in “Don’t Let Me Go.”

In a trio with her younger selves (Audree Hedequist and Erin McMillen), Shonna Cirone’s Fiona shines in “I Know it’s Today.” This Fiona trio produces glorious harmony while pining for Prince Charming to arrive. Cirone and Chew are also memorable trying to one-up each other in “I Think I Got You Beat.”

As Lord Farquaad, a character with short man syndrome and obvious daddy issues, Mark Linehan combines great comic timing and inflection, a strong singing voice, and ability to carry all of it off — including a kickline — while on his knees. He sustains the artifice of being the shortest character on the stage throughout, making it doubly amusing during curtain call to find that he’s actually the tallest person in the cast.

The ensemble, many of whom play multiple roles, does a wonderful job in portraying the variety of fairy tale characters who let their “Freak Flag” fly in a rousing anthem reinforcing the show’s theme — that no one should be made to feel inferior or “less” than anyone else.

The set functions well to demonstrate a variety of locations while maintaining the pace of the production. The highlight of the visual aspects of the show is Charles G. Baldwin’s vibrant and inventive costuming, which is quite different from of the original film and stage production. Baldwin’s crowning glory is his orange Dragon puppet, flawlessly operated by about a half dozen puppeteers who quickly become “invisible” as the audience focuses on the love-sick Dragon’s song “Forever,” powerfully sung by Brittany Rolfs.

The dramatic sunset transformations of Princess Fiona were undercut a bit by the choice to not give her a green face or prosthetics, but probably posed no issue for those most likely familiar with the plot. A few technical glitches, especially with sound, did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience.

If you think the show is just for kids, adults will get a kick out of the double entendres and puns regarding Farquaad’s height and the overt and subtle references to a variety of Broadway shows, including *Les Mis, Gypsy, The Lion King*.

Wheelock’s delightful and energetic Shrek sends a positive and timely message about not judging ourselves or others by what’s on the outside rather than by what’s on the inside. In our looks-obsessed society, it’s a message that kids can’t hear enough.