This show isn’t great…certainly not as good as the irresistible film on which it was based…but it had quite a bit going for it. Its main problem is that it isn’t nearly as funny as the original film, mostly because the show’s book shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the film funny. The film’s comedy was very fast-paced, never lingering on one joke too long, but throwing so many at you that even its hit-or-miss sections played like dynamite on the screen, while the stage version makes the fatal mistake of drawing out the jokes into extended gags. For example, the flatulence jokes in the movie work because they go by so quickly that you don’t have time to think about how juvenile they are: the stage show draws this out into an uncomfortably long sequence that just makes you feel embarrassed for everyone involved.
Still, like its source, it had a great deal of heart, and they did a surprisingly good job of musicalizing it. This is largely thanks to Jeanine Tesori, the classy, sophisticated composer of Violet and Caroline or Change. She provides a delightfully tuneful score that sounds rather like her work on Violet without the country influences. The title character is given real depth, especially in the opening, “Big Bright Beautiful World” and its moving reprise, the searching ballad “Who I’d Be”, and the stunning cry of anguish “Build a Wall”.
Princess Fiona gets a fine, touching wanting song, “I Know It’s Today”, and the maniacally cheerful showstopper “Morning Person”. The plucky sidekick Donkey scores with two r&b showstoppers, “Don’t Let Me Go” and “Make a Move”, and the villain is humanized with the hilarious “Ballad of Farquaad”. Granted, the odd girl-group number for the dragon, “Donkey Pot Pie”, and the earnest-to-a-fault group anthem “Freak Flag” don’t quite measure up to the rest of the score, but this was still an impressive and successful musicalization of the material that didn’t really need the interpolation of “I’m a Believer” that served as the finale.
The cast also helps immensely. Sutton Foster got one of her better roles here, and she is joined by Brian D’arcy-James, Daniel Breaker (Passing Strange), Christopher Seiber (Spamalot), and John Tartaglia (Avenue Q), all of whom do an impressive job of making their own fun and make the material funnier than it has any business to be. Again, this may not have been a ‘good’ show, but it wasn’t anywhere near as terrible as it was made out to be, and while I don’t really recommend seeing it, the cast album is certainly worth picking up.