Local kids bring 'Shrek The Musical' to life


Eleven Warwick students will appear this weekend in Rhode Island Youth Theatre's (RIYT) production of Dreamworks' “Shrek The Musical ,”which will be performed at North Kingstown High School at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The show will feature a custom-built dragon, a live orchestra and a magical storybook where ogres, princesses and fairy tale characters come to life.

“I can’t say for sure, but I think we are the first community company to do the musical,” said Ann O’Grady, who created the Fantasy Works Youth Theater around 25 years ago.

Brian Roque, the 15-year-old LaSalle Academy student who plays Donkey, said, “I’m pretty sure we are the first in Rhode Island.”

Chances are, they are both right about that. Even a pared-down, modified version of the musical would be a challenge for an amateur group.

“Shrek The Musical” is by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. It is based on the 2001 DreamWorks film “Shrek” and William Steig's 1990 book, “Shrek!” The Broadway production opened in December 2008, and closed after a run of more than 12 months in January 2010, not exactly a long run hit, in spite of 12 Drama Desk and eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and a Grammy for best cast album. At a cost of $25 million, “Shrek” was one of the most expensive shows ever mounted on Broadway. That run was followed by a pared-down production for touring. It has since showed all over the world.

“I can’t really say what our production costs [are],” said Roque, “but I don’t think it is anywhere near that much!”

Roque acknowledges he has to make his Donkey similar to the wise-cracking, fast talking version Eddie Murphy brought to the film, but as a veteran of many RIYT productions, “I know I have to do certain things that way but when it comes to singing, I have to be myself.”

That’s probably the way William Steig, author of the book that the movie and musical are based on, would like it. He had some very definite ideas about how children should act, and being yourself was a big part of it. He once wrote a book called “Agony in the Kindergarten,” about the repressive and hurtful comments parents make to or about their children. This was much before the excesses of the self-esteem movement in education caught hold. An ogre who just wants to be left alone resonates with kids, especially those who see themselves as unattractive, which is almost every kid.

Steig loved children, as many of his cartoons published in The New Yorker magazine over the years attests. He frequently featured feisty, street-smart little ruffians getting one up on the stuffed-shirt adults that surrounded them. His most famous was from those days when Americans were just beginning to be aware of broccoli, which used to be called “Italian asparagus” before it was popular. Steig’s little boy is sitting with his arms crossed at the dinner table after his parents tried to talk him into eating it.

“I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it!” was the caption, which became a catch phrase of the era; used when people wanted to indicate a snow job was going on.

Maurice Sendak, another author who was often liked more by the kids who read the books than the people who buy kids books, was a big fan.

“His use of crazy, complicated language is what’s so charming,” Sendak once said, “because kids love the sound of words.”

His 1969 book, “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” was banned in places in 1970 because some people thought Steig was calling policemen pigs because the policemen were pigs in the book.

Steig denied it and told TIME magazine that he viewed pigs as a good symbol for mankind, “a creature surrounded with filth and danger, a victim of circumstances created by himself, unwilling and unable to do anything about his condition and even, perhaps, in a way enjoying it.”

Sounds a little like Shrek, doesn’t it?

But, if anyone can bring the musical to life it is the RIYT.

Challenges is what the group was founded for in the first place; preparing kids for careers in the expensive and often heartbreaking world of live theater. The group emerged from the ideas of founder Ann O’Grady as she pursued her doctorate at the University of Connecticut. According to the group’s history at www.riyt.org, the paper was entitled “The Real Work of Fantasy,” and described a youth theatre company run by high school students considering careers in the arts.

Fantasy Works opened as a two-week summer camp in 1987 run by student directors working in collaboration with professional mentors.

“Over 200 shows and 12,000 students later, the recently renamed Rhode Island Youth Theatre has grown into the largest youth theater program in Rhode Island – producing a student-run summer musical series, after-school programs and original plays for educational venues, as well as a training program for students interested in careers in theatre,” according to their website.

In 2008, Fantasy Works got the Moss Hart special recognition award in Youth Theater for a production of “Les Miserables” at the University of Rhode Island.

“Our graduates have gone on to work on Broadway, national tours, summer stock theaters, community theaters and schools,” according to the site. “Our alumni include professional directors and choreographers, casting agents, production managers, arts administrators, technicians, teachers and supporters of the arts.” They have an active alumni network that helps emerging artists make the transition to professional employment.

The elaborate dragon puppet that will debut during the show was a collaborative effort between local designers Leslie Pritchard, Pam Vale Branch, and ShowMotion, Inc., a professional entertainment design company based in Connecticut.

Branch, who is from Warwick, created the dragon's head, which will be operated by her son, 14-year-old Logan Branch, during the two-hour production.

Other Warwick students besides Roque are: Sophia Boutin, 10, who will play the part of the henchman Thelonius, and Grace Truslow, 10, who plays Gingy, the gingerbread man. Kyle Clark, Amanda Dellaventura, Aidan Desjarlais, Danielle King, Casey Soares and Jacob Silva all have ensemble roles in the production.

William Steig would have loved to see real kids playing his characters. He might even have asked to be an extra in the show.

“I think I feel a little differently than other people do,” he once said. “For some reason, I've never felt grown up.”

North Kingstown High School, 100 Fairway Drive, at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 19 and Saturday, July 20. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door (the auditorium is air-conditioned). More information about the show and a link to purchase tickets can be found on the company website: www.RIYT.org.


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