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Wed11202019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

So you need a break from the endless search for the perfect holiday gifts, and the kids need a distraction from Santa’s impending arrival. What to do?

My suggestion: Head over to the Palm Canyon Theatre, and take in a performance of Shrek the Musical.

The show, of course, is based on the 2001 blockbuster DreamWorks film, and the book and lyrics are by David-Lindsay Abaire, with music by Jeanine Tesori. It tells the story of an ogre named Shrek, who is sent out into the world by his parents at the age of 7. His parents warn him that because of his odd appearance, life will be difficult for him. Shrek is living alone in a swamp when all sorts of fairy-tale creatures show up, having been banished from the Kingdom of Duloc by the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad (who belts out “Story of My Life” to explain).

Shrek sets off to see Farquaad in an effort to get his privacy back, and runs into an annoyingly chatty donkey along the way. Meanwhile, Farquaad is making plans to marry Princess Fiona, who’s been locked up in a tower for years; meanwhile, she’s waiting for a brave knight to rescue her with a kiss. Like Shrek, she’s been on her own since the age of 7. Farquaad agrees to give Shrek the deed to the swamp in exchange for rescuing Fiona—a task which includes dealing with a fire-breathing dragon and a moat of lava.

Fiona is initially shocked by Shrek’s looks, but we later learn that she’s hiding a secret. Shrek assures her that it’s Lord Farquaad she is to marry, and wedding plans are made. But affection grows between the princess and the ogre.

Does the wedding occur? Or does Fiona’s friendship with Shrek blossom into romance? Do Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the other the fairy-tale creatures move out of the swamp? If you are one of the few people who haven’t watched the movie, see Palm Canyon’s production to find out.

This Shrek gets off to a slow start. The actors lack a bit of energy, but that all changes when the Donkey (Shafik Wahhab) enters the picture. Wahhab nearly steals the show, thanks to his physical antics and Eddie Murphy-esque repartee. He provides much of the humor, and it’s hard to keep your eyes off him.

Kelly Peak is quite good as Shrek. He has a strong singing voice and allows us to see the ogre’s vulnerability; after all, ogres need love, too. Also notable is Anne Schroeder as Fiona, whose comic timing and strong voice are reminiscent of a young Carol Burnett, in “Once Upon a Mattress.” Nicholas Sloan’s Lord Farquaad is hilarious; his performance (delivered entirely on his knees) deserves a Supporting Actor nomination of some sort. The always-dependable Julie Rosser is fabulous as the voice of the Dragon.

The ensemble—which includes many children—is adorable, but some of the group numbers seem a tad under-rehearsed. Director William Layne keeps things moving along, and the relationships between the main characters are well-developed and believable.

Once the cast’s energy level picks up, it stays up, and everyone onstage seems to be having a blast. The music is catchy; the costumes are colorful; and the large dragon puppet is terrific and manipulated with great skill. (During the matinee I saw, there were microphone glitches in the first five minutes, but I’m sure those will be worked out.)

The underlying message—love and happiness is possible for all of us, no matter what we look like or how rocky of a start we had in life—is one we can’t hear often enough. Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Shrek the Musical is uplifting and fun, and a great addition to the valley’s holiday entertainment. The closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” will have you humming and tapping your toes all the way home.

Shrek the Musical is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. Running time is about 2 1/2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or go to www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Pippin. The very name suggests fun, music and lightness.

But there’s also a dark side to this season-closer musical at the Palm Canyon Theatre. It’s a show of contrasts.

It’s primarily a dance show. The bevy of “players” writhe, flip, shimmy, roll, strut, gyrate, leap, frolic, prance, hop, mince, stride, march, saunter, flit, spin, gallop, toddle, shuffle, glide, prowl and skim over every inch of the stage. The choreographer, Anthony Nannini, has adapted the dancing from the work of the immortal Bob Fosse. The dancers represent every possible body shape and type, but from the opening number—with the disembodied white-gloved hands illuminated by black light—it’s Fosse all the way. Sexy and suggestive moves combine with Peter Mins’ glitzy, dazzling costumes to maximize the effect.

As far as the plot goes, I’m reminded of TV and movie thugs who say, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” I’m particularly reminded of a scene—I think it was in The Sopranos—in which some semi-literate oaf offers his analysis of a script: “Maybe it’s got a weak plot.” Or, as my father used to say about opera, “If you worry about the plot, you’ll go crazy.” One problem is the betrayal of the Pippin audience’s belief when someone who is killed is then brought back to life, because it isn’t convenient to have him gone. Humph!

The story is the search for life’s meaning, by a barefoot young prince, Pippin—our choreographer, Anthony Nannini. He happens to be the heir to the throne of the great King Charlemagne, colorfully portrayed by the delightful Peter Mins. Predictably, this is complicated by a scheming second wife (Elissa Landi, with her famous legs and attitude, although she was clearly out of her depth with her vocal solo), who wants the throne to go to her son Lewis, played by the perfectly cast Daryl J. Roth, with his amazing sculpted body, chiseled face and chin for which Dick Tracy would kill. A charming turn is taken by the seasoned Rosanne Hopkins, with her admirably crisp diction, as the grandmother.

The first act is largely dominated by the mob of dancers, while Act 2 belongs to Nannini. Here, he seizes the opportunity to cut loose and show us what he can do (and do not take your eyes off the ropes). It wasn’t difficult to find out why his cast notes bid farewell to the Palm Canyon Theatre, where he has been nurtured for several years: He’s bound for New York and the big time. Watch him in this show, and you’ll see why. He’s a quadruple threat: actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. And he’s terrific at all of it. He was born to play lead roles like this. In fact, when he went off-script and improvised some dialogue to explain one of those opening-night ooops! accidents, the audience rewarded him with an appreciative ovation.

The second act also introduces his love interest, the widow Catherine, played by pretty Sarah Noe, and her son, Theo, a very young and sweet Stephen Lee. Throughout the show, Hiram Johnson, the “Leading Player,” acts as a host/narrator/Greek chorus, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to simply watch him move. His grace, economy of gesture and body awareness seem natural and effortless. That said, it was unfortunate that his mushy verbalizations made him difficult for the audience to understand. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that his interpretation of the events was important to explaining the action. His singing voice was true, however.

Director Don Lillie, who hails from Missouri (“where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended,” he told me), certainly had his hands full with this cast of 19. Interestingly, his first-ever theater teacher was the venerable William Layne, founder of the theater and patriarch of the family that runs it. The cast wrestles pieces of the J.W. Layne set around the stage to change scenes and locations, in full view of the audience—always fascinating to see. The Mado Nunez hair and wigs worked well, but the makeup of some actors featured a huge distracting blotch on the right side of some faces. (A heart? A star? WTF?)

Once again, the “old pros”—Mins, Hopkins, Landi—made Lillie’s production, along with the youthful Nannini, and Roth, who seemed to be flawless. Of course, the show benefits greatly from the contributions of designer Nick Edwards, musical director Charlie Creasy, the book by Roger O. Hirson, and the music/lyrics of Stephen Schwartz—and if that name sounds familiar it’s because he composed Wicked and Godspell.

So, it’s a production of contrasts. And don’t worry about the plot.

Pippin is performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 18; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance