Touring production of 'Shrek the Musical' gets tech rehearsals in Anchorage

Mike Dunham

Atwood Concert Hall is undergoing a transition into a fairyland this week. Specifically, the enchanted world of "Shrek." Actors, musicians, costumers and stage crews are conducting tech rehearsals -- tweaking sets, fixing bugs, adjusting costumes, running new cast members through their scenes -- in Anchorage for the musical that opens its North American tour here on Friday.

"It makes sense to start the tour there," said associate producer Angela Rowles. "One thing the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts offers is that it has a variety of spaces available. We have the smaller theater where we can work while sets are being loaded into the Atwood. It lets us do several things at once."

The availability and size of the facility is also a factor, she said. The cast includes 27 performers with a full crew of about 50 traveling with the show.

Another motivator for the production company, Networks Presentations, is the time saved by putting Alaska at one end of the schedule.

The next stop on the tour will be Omaha, Neb., and it will take about a week to transport the sets and costumes there.

"Normally, if we try to take a show to Anchorage, we have to take off almost an entire week each way," Rowles said.

"Those are days when we're not making any money. By starting it there, we can fly everyone in and don't have as much down time. It cuts off half that expense."

Watching the bottom line is important, even for a box office success.


"Shrek" was a sensational success long before it went on stage. William Steig created the parody fairy-tale of a young ogre who leaves home to see the world in a popular children's book published in 1990.

It was named "Best Children's Books of the Year" by Publishers Weekly.

DreamWorks' animated film version, which heavily revised the plot of the book, came out in 2001. "Shrek" was a rare movie that was as popular with the public as it was with the critics. It won the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, set a record for home video sales and spawned a cinema franchise.

The musical version hit Broadway just before Christmas, 2008, receiving several nominations for major theater prizes and picking up the Tony Award for best costumes. The film-to-stage transition wasn't as simple as with, say, "Beauty and the Beast."

"Unlike other animated movies, there were no songs in 'Shrek'," said Bill Damaschke, chief creative officer for DreamWorks Animation, who oversees both the artistic direction of the studio's animated movie projects and the company's live theatrical productions.

"The first and most important thing was to figure out how it would 'sing' on stage," Damaschke told the Daily News.

"There were creative solutions to the theatrical questions," like a fire-breathing dragon, a singing donkey, an ogre and a girl who turns into an ogre. "But you needed the music."

To help them come up with songs, the team of composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire came into the first meeting with a list of questions, Damaschke said. Like: "How did Shrek get in the swamp?" "How does the dragon feel about all the knights coming to rescue Fiona but not caring about her?" "Why is Farquaad so angry at the fairy people?"

The answers to those queries informed 19 songs and musical numbers.

"The music expands out the story," Damaschke said. "It includes plots and subplots that weren't directly in the film." Where the film ran about 80 minutes, he said, the two-act stage version is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission.

On the technical side, costumes and makeup had to be figured out.

The title character was the biggest challenge, Damaschke said. "The costume has to be Shrek, but it also has to connect to the soul of the actor. We need to see his eyes. It has to be as compelling as the character in the movie. And it has to attach to the actor's face. We built lots of different versions, did lots of tests, trial and error."

"'Shrek' is all about the costumes," said Rowles. "The large dressing room and wardrobe facilities were another reason for teching the show in Anchorage. We need space to fit and alter costumes for the cast."

Damaschke spoke by phone from London, where a production of the show is running. "I went to see the actor playing Shrek get into his makeup and costume," he said. "It's 90 minutes, every night. You can't do short cuts.

"But the actors know that. They actually use it as a tool to get into character."


In addition to the "Shrek" series, Damaschke has worked on DreamWorks' "Madagascar," "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon" projects.

There's a long list of animated films planned out through 2016.

"Movies take so long to make nowadays," he said. "It's a minimum of four years. I think because of that, we work on the stories we choose to tell from the beginning as if they can be classics for generations."

Among his current projects is an arena tour based on "How to Train Your Dragon" produced in collaboration with the Australian company that created "Walking with Dinosaurs."

"I think we've created a new type of entertainment," Damaschke said. "Take the spectacle of 'Walking with Dinosaurs,' add flying, fire, projection work and the story of the movie."

Technology makes the story easier to tell, both on screen and on stage, he said.

"It makes new visions possible. But I think people will always want the same thing, a great story, to be engaged and, particularly, to be surprised."

Surprised by the action on stage, not because something doesn't go as planned.

Part of Rowles' job is to make sure the show goes smoothly, and the Anchorage tech rehearsals are key to that.

Networks Productions has previously brought shows like "Beauty and the Beast," "Wizard of Oz" and "Hairspray" to Anchorage. Rowles herself was a performer when "Sesame Street Live" came to town some years ago.

"The design team is excited that we're having rehearsals in Anchorage," she said. "A lot of the creative team that doesn't normally travel with the show is coming in. For so many people, Alaska is one of those places we never get to visit."

The benefit of kicking off the tour here extend beyond North America, she added.

"We spent our summer in Asia and just finished four weeks in Shanghai," she said. "Our set has been on a slow boat from China, literally, coming to Anchorage.

In June the company will wrap up its North American touring production of "Mary Poppins" in Anchorage, she said.

"After that, we're taking the show to Asia and the 'Mary Poppins' sets will make the reverse trip from Anchorage to Shanghai."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News