'Shrek' works out kinks before B'way

Seattle shakedown avoids New York media glare

SEATTLE -- The earth moved under the actors' feet, all right, but not the way it was supposed to.

The castle containing three Princess Fionas -- child, teenager and adult -- was advancing in an S shape rather than directly toward the audience. Director Jason Moore whipped out his cell phone and talked to stagehands. The crew would need some time to fix the wayward turntable, so Moore hopped onto the stage and announced that because of a mechanical problem there would be an unscheduled break in the action.

The problem occurred during the final preview performance of "Shrek The Musical," which opened Sept. 10 at the 2,130-seat 5th Avenue Theatre, a plush and ornate restored vaudeville house in Seattle that was designed with the throne room of the Imperial Palace in Beijing in mind.

"The audience had two intermissions -- that's what it felt like," recalls Caro Newling of Neal Street Productions, co-producer of the show with DreamWorks Theatricals.

Working out the bugs -- from runaway turntables to yawn-inducing lines -- is why producers and directors often stage a big show such as "Shrek" far from the media glare and demands of New York, despite the higher cost.

"It's fairly traditional for a Broadway musical to go out of town before opening in New York," Bill Damaschke, president of DreamWorks Theatricals, says.

"It's been an incredibly useful time here," Moore adds. "I would say that about half the scenes have been reordered" since the show begin previews Aug. 14.

Based on DreamWorks' megahit animated movie and the book by cartoonist William Steig, the musical tells how a cranky, crude green ogre who lives in a swamp rescues a fairy tale princess from a dragon-guarded castle surrounded by brimstone and wins her heart.

In this stage version, which has book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, Princess Fiona introduces herself as a bit "bipolar" and competes with Shrek and his best pal, Donkey, energetically portrayed by Chester Gregory, in flatulence and belching.

The music by Jeanine Tesori is new, including three songs written in Seattle. "We've changed probably four or five songs, we've changed the staging, we've changed the puppets," Moore says.

Damaschke would not give any figures, but costs for a Broadway musical typically start at more than $10 million and can run much higher, especially for large casts with well-known actors in lavish productions such as "Shrek," which features myriad moving panels covered with bark and leaves in sets by Tim Hatley that required the construction of several new traps in the stage.

As of opening night, when the show ran about 2 1/2 hours, about 16 minutes had been cut, the director says. "We probably have some more to cut ... maybe three minutes, maybe 10."

Sutton Foster, who plays Fiona, says it felt 25 minutes shorter. When given Moore's figure shortly after she arrives at an opening night party at the Space Needle, she laughs and says, "OK, I'll lower mine to 20."

"There's the amount of time you actually cut and the time that it feels like you've cut," Moore says.

"The overall effect of where we are now is just a more streamlined version," says Brian d'Arcy James, who plays Shrek.

"Tighter and ... telling the story more efficiently," is Foster's take.

Like Foster, James says his lines and stage directions changed little, and "kind of miraculously" neither did his monstrous costume and makeup. It takes about two hours to be converted into a real-life version of the movie character down to the green skin, bulging belly and tubular ears, and at least half an hour to resume human form. About all that's recognizable of James' natural features on stage are his highly expressive eyebrows.

"The things I did (in previews) were kind of changes in response to the costume," he says.

One change he didn't make from the movie is Shrek's voice -- except to water down the brogue a bit.

"There was no mandate for the Scottish accent," he says. "I felt the responsibility of meeting the expectations of the audience."

The audience and the theater were the principal considerations for opening in Seattle, despite the expense of shipping sets and costumes back and forth across the country, not to mention lodging and feeding dozens of performers and crew members, says Damaschke, who appeared as an actor in a touring production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the 5th Avenue during the early 1990s.

"It turned out to be more than we budgeted for," Newling says without divulging figures, "but it's not a major part of the equation."

"It's not a significant hit," Damaschke says. "It's actually a small price to pay."

Another consideration was the many Broadway productions that premiered in Seattle, including musicals such as "Hairspray" at the 5th Avenue in 2002 and "Young Frankenstein," in which Foster appeared at the Paramount Theatre last year.

Suitable theater space was unavailable in Denver or Chicago, and the 5th Avenue management agreed to shift its season and end a show early for installation of the complex "Shrek" sets, Caro says. Seattle's well-established theater scene also provides a wealth of local talent ranging from five of the 25 musicians to assorted hairdressers, costumers, stage hands and makeup artists.

Technicians arrived to start rigging the stage in mid-May. The rest of the backstage crew came in the next month, and the cast and musicians got to town in July. Most rehearsals were in a newly overhauled downstairs space at the 5th Avenue except for a vocal run-through on the stage of nearby Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, the only time the entire cast and musicians got to see each other in full voice at the same time.

During the unusually long six-week run -- twice the length of any previous musical that has opened in Seattle before moving to Broadway -- Moore says the audience seems to be consciously telling the cast, crew, directors and producers what did and didn't work.

"I actually expected them to be as savvy and as sophisticated and as responsible as they turned out to be," he says.

Some openings are arranged to seek financial backers for making the jump to Broadway. Foster, who appeared in out-of-town openings for four previous shows that went on to New York, says it's reassuring to know that, as with "Young Frankenstein," "Shrek" already has a theater lined up in New York. The show begins previews Nov. 8 at the Broadway Theatre and opens Dec. 14.

"We were grateful to have the extra time" in Seattle, she says. "This is an enormous production."

To James, it didn't seem that long.

"I feel liked it's two days. We've been so busy," he says.

The Seattle engagement ends Sept. 21.