A farting contest in the middle of Shrek the Musical turns out to be one of its classiest moments. The competition takes place between the title character, an okra-colored ogre played by Eric Petersen, and the object of his affection, a rescued red-haired princess named Fiona (Haven Burton). In the fanciful forest where platoons of nursery rhyme and fairytale creatures have been exiled by evil Lord Farquaad (David F. M. Vaughn), Shrek and Fiona engage in a flatulence battle, all while singing and dancing merrily to the tune "I Think I Got You Beat." They also belch at each other at thundering volume. Ah, romance.
If this is the future of American musical theater, the art form is doomed. Shrek emits the strong stench of "family entertainment" rendered into something low and rancid on the theatrical food chain. Done on an enormously extravagant scale as Broadway road tours go, and based, of course, on the DreamWorks franchise of hit animated films, Shrek the Musical, playing through the end of the State Fair at the Music Hall, lumbers along for two and a half hours of coarse humor. It also perpetuates gay and racial stereotypes of the worst kind. Donkey, the Eddie Murphy character from the movies, here played by Alan Mingo Jr., is the eye-popping, head-snapping, clop-and-jive sidekick to Shrek. Farquaad, the funniest-looking character (the actor playing him is on his knees with tiny puppet feet out front), swishes and lisps, a right royal poofta, as he pursues Fiona for reasons too boring to get into.
What was cute about the movies is lost in this bloated enterprise. In turning the product from screen to stage, book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire (a Pulitzer winner for the drama Rabbit Hole) and composer Jeanine Tesori (she also wrote Caroline, or Change) go for too many Broadway in-jokes, taking endless comic stabs at other, better musicals. Wicked (that other green-painted fairytale show), A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Into the Woods, La Cage aux Folles and Spamalot are referenced—to the detriment of Shrek, which suffers by comparisons.
If there's a message in Shrek, it was lost both in translation and in the Music Hall's garbled amplification, which makes the main character, who affects a Scottish brogue, unintelligible. It was easy to lose interest in all of this show's nasty nonsense just after the curtain went up. If you already have tickets, know this: It's not the movie.
Good performances rarely save a bad show. And great performances don't redeem the skeevy rock musical Closer to Heaven. It's terrible, but the way Uptown Players' production at the Kalita Humphreys Theater throws big (all local) talent at it, they seem to have mistaken it for Miss Saigon. At the top of the Closer to Heaven heap is lead actress Morgana Shaw, playing Billie Trix, a drug-woozed German chanteuse in the 1999 London gay club where the show is set. Shaw is fantastically entertaining using an accent that's Marlene Dietrich as done by Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, with a flourish of Ivana Trump. Strutting the stage in patent-leather dominatrix boots and a lace-up Merry Widow, growling like a starving tigress, Shaw sings sultrily of being "shot in the fatal cause of rock and roll."
Everyone involved in creating Closer to Heaven should be wearing bulletproof suits. Known as "the Pet Shop Boys musical," the thing's gushy, synthetic score was perpetrated by the British electronic dance music duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Taken out of the context of the show, the songs could be pleasant, souped-up power ballads. Heavy on empty lyrics—"I've never been closer to heaven/never been further away," goes the title number, which is reprised four times—they're disco-throbby with hummable hooks. But grafted into the execrable plot and dialogue written by Jonathan Harvey, they lose their punch. Comparisons to Mamma Mia! could be made, except next to Closer to Heaven, Mamma Mia! is Miss Saigon.
The plot, an unraveling macramé of underdeveloped characters and unresolved story lines, has a young Irish singer called "Straight Dave" (he's actually not, it turns out) moving up from busboy to go-go dancer to something-or-other at a dungeon-like nightclub. Dave has a brief affair with the club owner's daughter Shell before falling into the arms of Mile End Lee, a gay drug dealer. The coupling between the two lads happens under a urinal on a filthy men's room floor. (Definitely worse than a farting contest as romantic interludes go.)
Harvey's characters hit all the worst gay clichés: the wobbly-wristed, bitchy type (played hilariously by Mikey Abrams, but come on); the mean, predatory, pimp-like music producer (Coy Covington) holding "auditions" for towel-clad boy-band singers in his sauna; the once-married old closet queen (Jason C. Kane); the drug-peddling rough trade (Clayton Younkin); and Dave, the self-loathing twink (Evan Fuller). Director Bruce R. Coleman surrounds this unsympathetic lot with a chorus of clod-hopping oddballs, boys and girls, clad in stretchy black undies that seem to shrink with every scene. They writhe to awful choreography by John De Los Santos that combines karate kicks and crotch-grinding with Showgirls face-fanning.
What's wrong with Closer to Heaven can be summed up in one scene: the tribute to Caligula. That's Caligula the porn film, not the Masterpiece Theatre version. It's worse than the Satan's Alley sequence in Stayin' Alive (the campy sequel to Saturday Night Fever). But with working-class British accents that turn curse words into "fook" and "shiite." The show ends with Dave belting out a disarmingly upbeat pop tune, "Positive Role Model," moments after burying his dead lover, who was, don't forget, a drug-dealing manwhore.
The cast at Uptown, poor darlings, keeps struggling to turn turkey into filet mignon. All the leads are good actors and strong singers. Newcomer Fuller has Bieber-like cuteness and a lovely falsetto. Lee Jamison Wadley, as spurned girlfriend Shell, looks lovely in her Marianne Faithfull bangs as she bangs out some big songs. Ms. Shaw delivers such a deeply layered turn as Billie Trix, someone should write a Dietrich tribute and put her in it. Her throaty singing is fun to listen to and her deftly timed delivery of Harvey's ghastly zingers is killer. The best: "My love life was like Vietnam...a lot of protests and then it all ended in the '70s."
Closer to Heaven closes out this season for Uptown Players. They did some good work, notably this summer's hit musical revue Forbidden Broadway, but they still haven't comfortably found a way to fit into the Kalita Humphreys space. Bruce Coleman has directed two shows there this year—Equus and Closer to Heaven—and he keeps throwing ugly outfits onto the graceful, curving lines designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. For the latest show, set designer Andy Redmon has stacked up a hodgepodge of painted platforms, staircases, metal scaffolding, Celtic crosses and, waving at each other upstage, two towering cutouts of naked male figures wearing giant wings. The aesthetic is tacky, dreary and heavy. With penises.