The Freaks Are Out in Force in Shrek, the Musical at Gordon Square's Brand New Near West Theatre 

Let your freak flag fly

Sometimes, you feel good leaving a stage show after the curtain call because it was well acted, inventively staged and designed, or crisply directed. Or, you get a nice glow because the people involved in the production are so diverse and enthusiastic. But only rarely do you get a rush of all those feelings.

Such is the case with Shrek, the Musical, the inaugural production of the venerable Near West Theatre at their glorious new building in the Gordon Square Arts District. This show is so good, you may want to fart and burp up a storm — in honor of the two leads, who bond while sharing those always hilarious bodily (mal)functions.

Yes, Shrek can be a bit impolite at times, as it's based on the lustily offensive children's book by William Steig (and the tamer Dreamworks animated flick). It's about an ogre who strikes fear into everyone due to his monstrous ugliness, bilious green complexion and a lethal case of halitosis. With book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, Shrek has a few killer tunes and a story that anyone of any age can follow.

This is important because, since its founding in 1977, NWT has really been a family affair. To begin with, there are scads of kids in the 60-plus company of actors. And the audience is also filled with rugrats and their adult chaperones. But this isn't some extended skit at day care. As he has done for decades, NWT artistic director (and director of this show) Bob Navis Jr. demands that the children perform with energy and precision — not just wander around and look adorable.

The heavy roles are played by adult actors, and in this production they excel as the story of Shrek plays out. He's an outcast who lives in a swamp, happily it would seem, until a gaggle of fairy tale characters stumble into his bog. They've just been evicted from the Kingdom of Duloc by the evil and vertically challenged Lord Farquaad, because they're "freaks." Indeed, it would be hard to find a more outlandish grouping of people than Pinocchio, Humpty Dumpty and the Sugar Plum Fairy (unless you're down the street at the Big Egg around 3 a.m.).

Anyhow, Shrek and his newfound pal, the talking Donkey, get roped into rescuing Princess Fiona so Lord Farquaad can marry her. Many of these scenes involve huge production numbers that are staged with professional style and impressive flash by the Near West team. This includes scenic and prop designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski, costume designer (of tons of costumes!) Inda Blatch-Geib, and choreographer (and NWT executive director) Stephanie Morrison Hrbek.

In the title role is Patrick Ciamacco, founder and artistic director of Blank Canvas Theatre, who first performed at NWT when he was 16 years old. Ciamacco has done this role before, and he is pitch perfect with his oafish, endearing attitude and his powerful singing voice. He is matched nicely by Cassandra Mears as the wacky and occasionally flatulent Fiona.

As Shrek's right-hand Donkey, Justin Woody, also a Shrek veteran, has fun with this good-natured pack animal. And even more laughs are landed by the inimitable Kevin Kelly as Lord Farquaad. Performing on his knees or locked inside a throne-car, Kelly has no shame in pursuing giggles with relentless efficiency.

Also on point are Delaney Cunningham as Young Fiona and Statia Rankin as Teen Fiona, when they join Mears in the ironically hopeful "I Know It's Today." Not all the songs are that successful, but the showstopper, "(Let Your) Freak Flag (Fly!)" is a stirring anthem for those of us — all of us? — who don't quite fit into the expected mold. And it is made even more resonant since pretty much the whole cast is on stage, singing and stomping.

Sure, there are a couple wrinkles. At times, the excellent orchestra overpowers the voices, rendering some clever lyrics inaudible. And the Three Little Pigs' costumes, featuring crotch-less pants, seem rather rude (yes, I know that pigs don't usually wear pants at all. Still ... ).

This is happening in Near West's new $7.3-million home, a freestanding building featuring a huge stage that can easily handle the hordes of performers that they summon to each show. The whole space has that clean, simple, post-industrial look that feels right for this theater company. And the house seats are well raked so that even small patrons can get a good look at the performers.

Near West Theatre has a mission of building community, changing lives and helping others. And even little ones in the audience get the message. On the night I saw Shrek, one of the Three Blind Mice lost his cane and it rolled off the stage where a toddler picked it up and handed it back to the performer. Hey, once you go through the doors at NWT, you're part of the family.


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