When you analyze "Shrek: The Musical," it doesn't seem like it should be as much fun as it is.
The story is essentially a standard, simple fairy tale (a semi-monster falls in love with a beautiful princess, who wants to marry a handsome prince) and it's stretched out to three hours with a lot of songs that are good but seldom great, and an annoying number of characters from children's stories who don't have much of a reason to be in the story. It's moral -- which is essentially "don't judge a book by its cover" -- is about as clichéd as a moral can be.
But the Manatee Players' current production of "Shrek," a musical based on the animated movie, which was based on a popular children's book, is a delight.
It's the cast, directed by Manatee Players producing artistic director Rick Kerby, plus some great design work and puppetry, that make it work so well.
The plot, as you probably know, is about a lonely, lovable ogre named Shrek whose solitary existence in a marsh is interrupted by the intrusion of all those characters from children's stories. There's Pinocchio, Humpty Dumpty, the Three Little Pigs, etc. The nasty Lord Farquaad has banished all of them to the marsh for some reason.
Farquaad tells Shrek he can have the marsh to himself if he'll rescue a princess who's imprisoned and guarded by dragon.
Brian Chunn sings solidy as Shrek, although his costume makes it almost impossible for him to act subtly and evocatively.
Sarah Cassidy as Fiona, the princess, wields her gorgeous voice powerfully, and elevates every song she sings. (She was Fantine in Manatee Players' "Les Miserbales," and sang "I Dreamed a Dream" spectacularly.)
If the rest of the cast weren't so strong, Whitey Mignon Reed would steal the how as Donkey, Shrek's obnoxious but devoted companion on his adventure. Reed is fun to watch and listen to every moment she's on stage.
Mike Thompson is a hoot as Farquaad, and he makes the most of the costumes that turns him into a dwarf.
In her one song, 9-year-old Riley Baye sings well and has an impressive confidence and stage presence.
But perhaps the most impressive character is 20-foot dragon puppet created by Carianne Hoff. It glows in the dark, it breathes fire (well, just smoke, actually), its eyes and lips move and its wings flap. It's a low-tech but spectacular effect.
Kerby gets great acting and singing out of his 28-person cast, and he also choreographed some enjoyable dance numbers. Some of the ensemble numbers have great harmonies (Rick Bogner is the music director) and the costumes by Ken Mooney bring cartoon characters to life wonderfully.
It's not a perfect production -- the orchestra drowns out the singers at times, and some of the behind-the-scenery stuff that the audience wasn't supposed to see was plainly visible -- but it's close enough. "Shrek" is a good show, and this production makes it better.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.