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Now I’m a believer: Why Shrek, against all the odds, made this curmudgeon appreciate musicals

I’m not a big fan of musicals. The contrived plots, the hammy overacting, the simplification of events and emotions all rub me the wrong way.  It’s a uniquely American art form, dating back to the production of Oklahoma in 1941, and only we Americans could delude ourselves into appreciating the pageantry of musicals as serious art.  So when I first heard that High School North’s spring musical this year was going to be based on an animated blockbuster, you can imagine how thrilled I was.  I thought I was going to have to sit through a few hours of groan-worthy, predictable narrative and poorly written musical numbers featuring awkward dancers in ill-fitting tights.

I don’t do this often, but I have to admit: I was so horribly wrong.

Sure, the script was corny and some of the song and dance numbers left me nervously shifting in my seat, waiting for the cast to get on with the story—but that didn’t really matter in the end.  I left the show Friday night feeling more accepting, and more immune to the power of shame, than before.

Director Rob Corriveau must have taken note last year, when then-sophomore Freddy Maresca completely stole the show in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  They cast him as Shrek this year, and he was even more brilliant.  Freddy’s talents lie in finding that perfect balance between comic exaggeration and insightful vulnerability.  It was awesome to see him blossom in a role that—minus the green skin and the fat suit—seemed incredibly truthful to him.  Sure, it was Shrek and not Hamlet, but Maresca imbued the role with a profound empathy.  His was easily the best performance I’ve seen at North.

But despite Maresca’s huge presence, this was not a one-man show.  The ensemble seemed incredibly happy to be a part of the musical’s manifesto for freakiness, and their enthusiasm was infectious.  The voice alterations and impassioned crooning of junior Joey Gonella as Pinocchio and senior Claire Towell as Gingy (who did some really impressive improvisation to save a faulty scene)—they sounded like a peeved Mickey Mouse and Kristen Schaal, respectively, and their hilarious humanity was welcome each time they graced the speakers.  Sophomore Matthew Zuppancic played the cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf, not a major role by any measure, but was so funny and true that he diverted my attention when he appeared on stage, panting “Esperanza!” into Maresca’s green ears.  And of course, the incomparable Jon Gelb, a senior, was a riot as Lord Farquaad: “What do you think, Thelonius?  No, you’re right—too smutty.”  The whole ensemble deserves credit for making the performance so successful—I’m not just handing out participation awards, either.  I really mean it.

Last but not least is Fiona.  I didn’t see senior Alora Eisen in the lead role, although she was great as Fiona’s ogre transformation, so I can’t speak for what I’m sure would have been a great performance.  But junior Kavya Pochiraju, in her first even slightly major role, absolutely blew me away.  Apart from an amazing voice and some killer tap-dancing skills, the subtlety of her acting was both comic and tragic, her frantic nervous grin communicating the message of loneliness and bravery in the face of a cruel world better than any makeup or costumes could.  And her chemistry with Maresca, during the scene in which they sing to compete over the sadness of their lives, was palpable.

The stage managers, along with the whole crew, deserve to be recognized for achieving a production that looked like it belonged on a West End stage instead of a high school auditorium.  I mean, the puppetry and costuming alone would have made for an impressive spectacle.  In the end, the cast and crew managed to take a corny Broadway moneymaker based on a sophomoric Dreamworks moneymaker and turn it into something unique and special.  Shrek is an insecure depressive isolationist; Fiona is a bipolar burp champion; and the Big Bad Wolf is fabuulousssss.  But they all wind up happy by the end, without the things society has told them they need to be happy—they have each other, and they’re cool with that.  Shrek tells us that you should find something to love and hope for in a world that often seems full of hate and fear.  Embracing our differences is about more than just tolerating each other—it’s about loving ourselves.  There’s no room for Farquaad’s insecurity, even if he is a freak like the protagonists.  Happiness is not given to you; you make it yourself.

And so I left the theater not only in awe of the accomplishments of my classmates, but flying high on a cloud of joyous, all-encompassing appreciation for the world around me.  I guess I’d be willing to sit through some cheesy dance numbers if it means I can feel like this again.  Shrek is…I don’t know how to articulate it.  Shrek is love.  ShrekShrek is life.

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