Review: Shrek the Musical at Sunderland Empire

Review: Shrek the Musical at Sunderland Empire

Shrek the Musical – Tuesday 6th February 

What a big, bright, beautiful world it felt after watching Shrek the Musical at Sunderland Empire Theatre last night. This show just radiates love, positivity and friendship and truly was outstanding from beginning to end. The theatre was packed with almost every single seat sold and it was such an exciting atmosphere, with audience members of all ages there, to enjoy a fun filled evening. 

Shrek the Musical mirrors the story of the first movie which is an absolute staple in so many households. Loved by so many with so many iconic quotes, characters and references – I honestly quote “That’ll do Donkey” weekly – it had some big boots to fill. I saw a local amateur production of this last year and loved it, so was excited to see what the night had to offer. 

The staging was simple yet effective. I adored the built in set with the twinkling lights and changing colours that were perfectly used throughout the evening to depict the different scenes. There was a real mixture of scenery used from the swamp home, the arches and beds to the use of the interactive screen. This was cleverly mapped out and impactful as it allowed them to have a whole host of different scenes without having to stop the flow with scene changes.  When physical props were brought on it was often done behind the stage cloths to allow for quick and impressive changes. I couldn’t fault the scenery and really don’t think they scrimped on the set or production value. However, some of the graphics could have been of a higher quality and more could have been done with them, for example, the iconic storytelling book could have been more engaging. 

Our main protagonist was the grumpy but loveable Shrek played by Antony Lawrence. He gave a real solid performance as Shrek and I was blown away by his accent especially how he kept it up throughout his musical numbers – something which often slips (even in the recorded version on Spotify!) He gave such light and shade to this part and really gave Shrek a warm, kindhearted feel which totally made this character his own. Shrek sings one of my favourite songs within this production with ‘Who I’d Be’ – a totally empowering and moving song about his hopes and dreams. He sang this pitch perfectly with a real mix of talking and singing which he managed to balance well throughout. He also sang ‘When Words Fail’ beautifully too and this showed such diversity within his acting – so emotional – I even shed a little tear. This song is far too real for the socially awkward – never knowing what to say in that certain situation – been there before! 

Shrek then stumbles upon a trusty steed in the form of Brandon Lee Sears who played the iconic Donkey. This part requires extreme high energy and happiness which Sears did not disappoint us with. His vocal range was huge and he had such an unusual but brilliant tone to his voice – every note may not have been pitch perfect but I sometimes enjoy this more when there is a bit of character and danger within the acting rather than a perfect vocal. His characterisation was amazing – perfectly annoying yet endearing. He had the most incredible facial expressions which the make up team did a brilliant job at emphasising and his physical acting was so impressive especially the handstands and walking on all fours- wow! He definitely has the biggest comedy role of the whole cast and managed to pull this out of the bag with his boundless energy and had the audience right where he needed them – especially the children. I really enjoyed his version of ‘Make a Move’ – definitely a number you can see he is comfortable with especially when he was cartwheeling across the stage. The use of the sexy three blind mice here was fantastic as well with such sexy, sultry dance moves. 

Donkey’s love interest Dragon was played by Cherece Richards and wow, just wow. What a performer. She has got an incredible voice which filled every inch of the venue with her song ‘Forever’ – what a powerhouse! The use of the puppet was so lovely and well used – the puppetry design was really beautiful. I would have liked to see the puppet reappear at the end where the glass window is smashed as this for me, was the only part of the show where I felt let down and like they had missed a trick. It could have been bigger and more impressive as I feel like the demise of Lord Farquaad could have really been milked. The visuals and sound effects just fell a little flat and more could have been made of this section – maybe I just wanted Dragon back on to sing again!

I really enjoyed the references throughout to other musicals, movies and pop culture and love it when shows do this. One song ended with ‘Bring me Down – Oh oh ohhhhhh’ a reference to the iconic Wicked and as this was sung this whole set turned green. There was also a reference at the end of Dragon’s song to Dreamgirls with ‘You’re gonna love me.’ They referenced other fairy tales throughout but in Lord Farquaad’s song a strong link was made to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Shrek also referenced the Stadium of Light which got a big cheer too. 

Luckily, as I had hoped, some of the iconic quotes were indeed used in the musical such as ‘not today Donkey’, ‘onions have layers’, ‘do you know the Muffin Man?’, ‘not the gumdrop buttons’ and my personal favourite – ‘I’m a stallion baby!’. This was so refreshing to see that they used these. 

Another highlight for me had to be the trio of Fiona’s singing, ‘ I Know it’s Today’. There is something about a trio of people singing together that is so special but this was just acted out so beautifully. The expressive movements and exquisite harmonies gave me goosebumps and they just brought this song to life. I do often like to see the age differences between the Fiona’s and this allows for a lovely child and teenager part however, you could not fault their ability to still put these ages across on stage and it did lend to being a much more powerful song. Throughout the show, Fiona, or Joanne Clifton of Strictly Come Dancing fame effortlessly gave her character so much depth and dimension. She had clearly considered how she wanted to make Princess Fiona her own and went for it – she really gave more pizazz to this role than I have seen before with such a lightness and happiness to boot. Of course, her dancing was out of this world too!

James Gillan played Lord Farquaad, the resident baddy in Shrek. He was utterly hilarious, colorful and over the top. The baddest of them all played with such humour and fun. I adored his song ‘The Ballad of Farquaad’ and he has a real ability to tell a story upon stage. His dancing was so much fun alongside his Duloc clan. His hair flips and levels of sass were off the chart. Top tier performance. 

The real highlight of the full show for me though was the parts with the chorus. The costuming was lovely and the power behind the chorus was a sight to behold. When I see big chorus numbers performed with such high energy it reminds me why I just adore musical theatre. Their singing was just so powerful and impressive with great harmonies and some ear splitting notes. A huge credit should be given to the cast for the variety of different roles they play and the sheer talent – singing, acting and that incredible dancing. They were all perfectly in sync with their choreography during both ‘Story of my Life’ and ‘Freak Flag’. They had all honed in on their own characters so well from the cross dressing wolf to the hilarious three German pigs. A big bravo to the dressing team as well, who had to get the cast changed incredibly quickly at some points. Such power and fun was shown through these chorus numbers and I couldn’t help but smile.

Two stand outs have to be Pinocchio played by Mark Darcy and Gingey played by Georgie Buckland. Backflips, dancing, tremendous voice acting and ridiculous vocals from the pair. Georgie hit one of the highest notes I have ever heard live and my jaw dropped. 

The show ended with the brilliant I’m a Believer which had the audience on their feet, singing and dancing along. 

You can clearly see how much hard work and passion has gone into this production and the joy exuded from the cast on stage. Brilliant choreography, standout performances and powerful vocals helped bring this show to life. It’s family friendly and quite frankly hilarious- especially if you’re a big kid like me. If you want an evening of energetic and joyous fun make sure you get yourself down to the Empire Theatre!

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