Strange as it sounds, I suspect one's enjoyment of Theatre Memphis' Shrek might be determined in advance depending on whether you loved Fey's controversial SNL monologue about protesting racial injustice by staying home and eating your grief in the form of a frosted sheet cake, or if you thought it was a heaping sack of privilege on parade. If you've got a sweet tooth, director Cecelia Wingate's the cake boss. But with American identity politics taking a deadly turn, there's something a little weird about sitting in a nice East Memphis auditorium filled with polite (mostly), middle-class (seeming) adults (primarily) getting all gushy when a verdant ogre and his unwanted posse of fairytale characters in fur suits sing a feel-good anthem to the freak flag and how good it feels to let it fly.
Shrek's a big, colorful dessert course of a musical; expensive-looking, with a visual profile inspired by the animated Dreamworks feature, a score by Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori, and lyrics by Pulitzer-winner David Lindsay-Abaire. Bubblegum bass lines mingle with easily digested messages of inclusiveness for folks out looking to cram some hope in their faces during upsetting times. Even though the franchise launched in 2001, those looking for even more resonance will find it in Shrek's plan to build a wall and a gag about a tiny tyrant with daddy issues.
Shrek's evidently a labor of love for Wingate's tight ensemble of pink pigs, blind mice, and non-gender-conforming wolves, and the performances here are something to get excited about in any case. Justin Asher plays the abominable ogre with a warm Scottish brogue and a big heart. Asher's a Wingate regular and no stranger to monster makeup. He was Lurch in The Addams Family and the Monster in Young Frankenstein, both at Theatre Memphis. Shrek's Asher's best beastie yet, and his big baritone makes a nice counterpoint to Lynden Lewis Jones' soaring vocals as the cursed Princess Fiona. Cordell Turner's Donkey delivers on laughs and between Anne Freres' supernatural voice and Jack Yates' epic, smoke-belching, fire-breathing, eye-blinking design, Shrek's dragon sequence is a hard act to follow.
Shrek is at Theatre Memphis through September 10th.
So I'm sitting in the audience before Playhouse on the Square's fine production of 9 to 5 (the musical, natch) trying to remember if alarm clocks really looked like that in the 1970s or if the clock's bells really were designed to look like a pink, generously filled bra on a chilly night. Could we really be objectifying so early in a show about fighting objectification? The answer I eventually settled on: Yes, clocks looked like that, and yes to all the rest, too.
9 to 5 isn't just a screwball pink-collar relic of the Reagan era. It's a transgressive anti-chauvinist romp with politics, to borrow from The New Republic, "rooted in the moment when Second Wave feminism prompted the entrance of millions of middle-class white women into the paid workforce and the exit of many of those same women from the marriages they had entered in the Baby Booming 1950s and '60s." It tells the story of three overworked and over-groped secretaries who kidnap the boss and take over the office and start making the business better in his absence.
Playhouse on the Square's solid cast hits all the right marks. People cheer when Nicole Hale's Doralee threatens to change Michael Detroit's Franklin Hart Jr. "from a rooster to a hen in one shot." They cheer the pot-fueled sequence when Jenny Madden's Judy and Jeanna Juleson's Violet fantasize about killing their boss. Detroit's a solid heel, and there's something undeniably cathartic about seeing him stuffed into an S&M rig and strung up in the air.
Dolly Parton's musical contributions lend authority, but 9 to 5's arrangements call to mind popular music of the '70s as seen on The Lawrence Welk Show. Even this gifted, giving cast has trouble selling some of the show's clunkier numbers.
Fans of the song and film looking for a nostalgic girls' night out won't be disappointed. But 9 to 5 could still be radical, and deserves better treatment.
9 to 5 is at Playhouse on the Square through September 3rd.