While the New Paltz High School Drama Club struggles with issues of how to represent the maltreatment of Indian servants by a spoiled child of the British Raj in the opening act of The Secret Garden, the folks putting on the Middle School’s spring musical at the end of this month have an easier row to hoe. The show they chose this year is as straightforward a celebration of diversity as it’s possible for a kid-friendly stagework to be: Shrek the Musical. About the most controversial content in it is a song in which the titular green-skinned ogre and a shapeshifting princess compete to see who can belch the loudest.
Based on a 1990 children’s book by the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, subsequently turned into a series of movies by DreamWorks Animation, Shrek transports the audience to a make-believe land where a wannabe tyrant named Lord Farquaad is evicting all the fairytale characters in his realm. These motley refugees are exiled to a remote swamp that is the beloved home of a grumpy, antisocial ogre, who determines to get rid of his unwanted visitors even if it means going to the capital city and confronting Farquaad himself. En route he falls in with a wisecracking Donkey. Learning from a magic mirror that he must marry a princess to become king, Farquaad agrees to oust the squatters from Shrek’s swamp if he will bring back the Princess Fiona, who is imprisoned by sorcery in a tower guarded by a Dragon.
But Fiona is under a curse that makes her appear a beautiful human by day and a green-skinned ogre herself by night. Once Shrek manages to free her by having Donkey distract the Dragon, a budding romance develops between the Princess and her masked rescuer. Predictably, misunderstandings ensue and multiply before all is sorted out. Learning to accept people who are different from the norm is the story’s very clear message — or, as NPMS Spanish teacher Mary Holmes, director of the spring musical, puts it, “Be proud of who you are!”
“It’s a good play to put on in middle school, because everyone’s struggling with who they want to be,” observes eighth-grader Quinn Oremus, who will play the title role. “He’s a good character for me – not anything fancy, like a prince.” This is the first major part in a play for Oremus, who had ensemble roles in Peter Pan and Mary Poppins in sixth and seventh grades, but describes himself as “more of a singer kind of guy.” To portray Shrek, he’ll have to wear a costume that involves considerable padding, “some sort of baggage under my suit,” plus “a lot of green makeup.” He says that he finds the character relatable: “He has this quest, but he doesn’t want to go on it. He just wants to be left alone.”
The challenges of costume and makeup for the princess are twice as daunting — especially on a middle-school budget — since Fiona’s appearance has to switch back and forth radically and repeatedly. Holmes’ solution: Cast two girls in the part and have them both appear in each performance, but swap roles on different days so each gets a chance to play “ogre Fiona” and “regular Fiona.” “That means we can put one in full makeup,” the director explains. On Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, Willa Voorhis will portray regular Fiona and Lizzie Roff will take on the princess’ ogre manifestation. They’ll switch off for both the matinée and the evening show on Saturday.
Both are eighth-graders, and both have considerable acting experience already, both in school and in community theater. “This is my fifth show,” says Roff. “I started in Mary Poppins in sixth grade.” “This is my 20th show,” says Voorhis. “I started taking theater acting classes in kindergarten.” The two girls met at the From Stage to Screen Acting Studio in Highland. Asked what her favorite musical number in this show is, Roff replies, “‘Make a Move,’ even though I’m not in it.” The song is sung by Donkey, urging the cynical, introverted Shrek to express his growing romantic feelings to Fiona. Voorhis’ favorite is the show-stopping finale, “I’m a Believer.”
That song, written by Neil Diamond for the Monkees back in 1966, is the only one from the movie soundtrack that carried over to the stage musical. If you only know the movie, be prepared not to hear familiar songs like Smash Mouth’s “All Star” or John Cale’s heartwrenching version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But you will get to hear some great Broadway showtunes with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Pulitzer Prizewinner David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the book for the play), such as the giant production number featuring an army of rebellious fairytale characters, “Freak Flag.”
Among the other major roles in the play, Aili Zissu will play Donkey and Finn Lochard will play Farquaad. Dragon is voiced by Sarah Cunningham, with three other students standing over her holding up a Chinese New Year dragon parade puppet. Henry Wheeler plays Gingey and Thornton Eis plays Pinocchio. Adult helpers assisting the production in various roles include Mary Guirma, Jessica Robb, Rebecca Masters, Will Halpern, Sonja Nosovsky, Mille Weinman, Susan Ehrlich, Ayesha Ibrahim, Nick Zaccheo, Corrine Bunt and Mark Pizzarello.
On the day that the New Paltz Times visited the students in rehearsal, “Freak Flag” was the song being choreographed, and the singers and dancers took up the entire floor of the NPMS auditorium. How many kids participate in the spring musical? “Almost 100, by the time we’re done,” counting those painting scenery and making props and costumes, says Holmes. “It’s the largest activity in the school that takes from all three grade levels — maybe the largest activity in the whole district.”
Shrek is a story “about acceptance,” she adds. “It’s a very positive message for anybody, but especially middle-schoolers.” Come join the fun, and help overthrow the wicked Farquaad, at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, February 28 and 29, or at 2 p.m. on Saturday and again on Sunday, March 1 at the New Paltz Middle School. Tickets cost $5 for all and will be available at the door.