Monday, March 26, 2018

When you're grotesque life can be Kafkaesque

I hope I'm known as a great fan of performances by young people. I have often written of operatic productions with young professionals and students. I'm also a great fan of good community theater, and have written of a few theater performances I've seen. On Sunday I was gifted with a ticket to see the final performance of Actors Conservatory Theatre's youth production of Shrek, the Musical, right here in Yonkers. It was a delight. (I will probably use that word far too often in this post!) I'll be the first to admit I'm not up on the modern musical theatre repertoire (anything after Noel Coward is modern to me!), and it has been many years since since I'd seen the movie Shrek, so I didn't know what to expect. What I got was a lot of clever writing and pop culture in-jokes that even I understood, and some mighty fine performances.

ACT_Shrek_Promo from Justin Bolger on Vimeo.

First I must praise the performers. Of course, Shrek himself was the most important character, and young Harry Cooper played Shrek with great confidence and skill. We saw the character's bravado and arrogance, but also his vulnerability. We knew early on that this Shrek was a lovable ogre. I was told Mr. Cooper was not in good health for this performance, but this was evidenced rarely in his singing. His song "When Words Fail" had this bitter old blogger in tears. At 16, this young fellow has already accomplished a lot, and we expect to hear his name in the future. (In the spirit of full honesty, I will admit I've met Harry before, as he is the son of acquaintances I like very much and the reason I was at the show, but I would have written these words regardless.)

Shrek's sidekick Donkey was given amazing energy by Christina Rella. I was not a bit surprised to read of her dance accomplishments in the program's brief bio-blurb, for her movement on stage was magical. The young lady can sing and act, too. Donkey reminds me of Papageno--all heart, and although appearing not too bright, full of wisdom. Every moment Miss Rella was on stage was a treat. Shrek's beloved Princess Fiona was played by Katie O'Donoghue, a beautiful, fiery young actress who also had great magnetism on stage. I loved how easily she transitioned from dreamy young princess to spoiled brat. Her chemistry with Shrek was palpable, and their duet "I Think I Got You Beat" was a delight. (Dang! There's that word again!)

I can't name all the other performers who deserve praise, but I would be seriously remiss if I failed to mention Brian Steinberg, who played the diminutive Lord Farquaad. (Say that name a few times and you'll know what the writers were going for.) This farcical villain must be a joy to play, and that was clear in young Mr. Steinberg's performance. He was fully equal to the vocal, comic, and physical demands of the role. And who wants to spend that much time on his knees? (Shut up! There are children present!) I also loved Naomi Joyce as the vampy Dragon and Eva Crowley as Pinocchio. And there were many other members of the ensemble who stood out with their energy and talent.

This was a delightful production. Again, I don't know the show, so I don't know how much was original and how much was added. Regardless, I must praise director/music director George Croom for this accomplishment. I also loved the choreography of Janice Paganelli. The entire production team must be congratulated, for creating such a dazzling show on a community theatre budget. And frankly, the amount of love in the room was beautiful. I would like to stay in touch with this group and see what else they can do.

Some favorite moments: The entire ensemble (everyone except the four principals had multiple roles) as tap-dancing rats to open the second act. The three girls who played Three Blind Mice reminding me of Robert Plant girls. (Yes, I'm a product of the 80s.) The A Chorus Line and Bob Fosse dance references. The four imprisoned knights in the dragon scene that had one longing for a reference to the "Inquisition Song" from A History of the World, Part I. There was even a Mama Rose reference that made me squeal like a schoolgirl.

Usually I conclude a review by recommending the reader see the show, but alas, this was the final performance. I can only recommending supporting and seeing more performances from Actors Conservatory Theatre.

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