By Rory Winston (review of Shrek the Musical)
Photos courtesy of National Opera & Ballet of Bulgaria
As the cast members of Shrek, the musical anthemically belt out “Let your freak flag fly,” the Bulgarian audience expectantly lean in as though diversity, acceptance, and tolerance were sorely needed medicines that were about to arrive. When it comes to xenophobia, racism, homophobia, body-shaming, and bullying, Shrek is a vaccine – one that should be delivered from theater to theater, country to country in as many languages as is necessary to inoculate us all. This play managed to ‘go viral with all the theatricality of a Broadway show. It premiered in Sofia’s National Opera and Ballet just weeks before the Coronavirus shut down cultural venues throughout Europe.
Although traveling musicals often devolve into concert-like extravaganzas, this production eschews the usual pratfalls associated with Opera renditions. The performance was no Shrekfest at Tiffany’s showcasing virtuosity for its own sake. Under the helm of Director West Hyler – the 2017 winner for outstanding direction at NY Musical Festival Award – Shrek maximized on operatic talent and brought out all the humor, whimsy, schmaltz and dynamics of its Broadway counterpart.
Moments into the play, Shrek’s parents croon a heartfelt farewell to their only child ogre: “It’s a big bright world with happiness all around. It’s peaches and cream and every dream comes true. But not for you.” As the acerbic line floats mellifluously over the audience, it’s easy to tell that we’re in the idiosyncratic realm of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, David Lindsey- Abaire and five-time Tony nominee composer Jeanine Tesori. From the unrestrained laughter, it’s equally noticeable that those responsible for translating the work had done an astonishing job – namely, Lora Dimitrova, Miroslav Dimov and Boris Pankin.
To be clear, musicals can’t be translated per se. At best, they’re transposed – seamlessly and unobtrusively adapted into another cultural context and language. Capturing all the nuances, wordplays and associations of a writer like Lindsay-Abaire is no small feat. This is especially true in Shrek where the plot and character development take a backseat to the clever banter. Throughout the duration of the play, the dialogue departs from the elaborate yarn, drifting from allegory to pastiche. The repartee draws on pop cultural references or alludes to other fairytales and musicals. It is filled to bursting point with stylistic devices as well as ‘cultural winks and nods.’ It’s little surprise to find that one of the translators, Dimitrova, is not only a screenwriter who’d earlier translated all the songs to the musical Singing in the Rain, but someone who devises original lyrics for a band in which she herself is actively the lead singer.
Jeanine Tesori is one of the most gifted musical composers of our time. She’s also a personal favorite. Her oeuvre is an all-encompassing playground where allusions run amok, moods shift on a single beat, tropes are reinterpreted, phrasing reinvents motifs, genres meld, and altering cadences turn a dirge into a wedding march. In addition, her sense of rhythm and genuine talent for coming up with gripping melodies makes for both unforgettable and signature themes.
Although Shrek isn’t as emotive as either Tesori’s earlier Caroline or Change or as acrobatic as her most recent work, Soft Power, it is, nevertheless, a demanding musical that relies on both vocal alacrity and stylistic know-how. The singers need to possess rock star flamboyance, jazz sensibility, lieder-like precision, operatic exaltation and, above all, acting skills. The Bulgarian cast comes through with flying colors.
The two standouts are Vesela Yaneva and Kamen Asenov. Yaneva not only plays the Dragon but is the consummate ‘dragon lady’ ever ready to roast those around her while burning the house down. Raunchy, predatory, alluring and with a voice that would put many a belting stage diva and R&B/Jazz singer to shame, she is fire. As for Asenov as Lord Farquaad, his humor and acting skill are pure Broadway at its best. “Once upon a time,” says Asenov with all the pompous malevolence of Trump, “this place was infested. Freaks on every corner. I had them all arrested” Tantalizingly sardonic and vulnerable in equal measure, Asenov had me focused on his reactions, even while another actor was delivering a line.
Shrek, whether played by Atanas Yonkov or Konstanin Ikonomov is vocally persuasive. Both Fionas (Vesela Delcheva and Krastina Kokorska) have enough humor and pathos to remind us of what we lost with the passing of Madeline Kahn and what we have in Bernadette Peters. Likewise, both Boyan Arsov and Tsvetelin Pavlov do marvelous donkeys, each braying their way into your heart with just the right amount of angst, guile and self-satisfaction.
Much credit goes to the conductor Igor Bogdanov who knows precisely when less is more and when to let all hell break loose. With finely-honed choreography by Riolina Topalova, and a bevy of impressive dancers, Bulgaria’s Shrek the musical could (if not for the language) slip unnoticeably onto the Great White Way.
Rory Winston is a playwright & published poet, lyricist and the International Culture Editor for the New York Resident Magazine.