Face-off: ‘Our Town’ vs. ‘Dreck the Musical’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor email@example.com
ON THE BOARDS
OUR TOWN, Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road,
Addison. Through Oct. 24.
SHREK, Fair Park Music Hall,
909 First Ave. Through Oct. 17.
Even in the program notes of WaterTower Theatre’s current production, the reputation of Our Town as sentimental tripe is difficult to escape. Except in this exquisitely rendered production, it’s clear that rep is completely undeserved. Maybe abuse by countless high schools has soured opinion, but Thornton Wilder’s bare, simple snapshot of small-town life may be idyllic, but hardly is it idealized. This is humanistic theater in the best sense.
True, there would be no It’s a Wonderful Life without Our Town, but don’t allow the Capra-corn style to blind you to this show’s plainspoken beauty. Even before Act 3, when residents of the graveyard propel the action, this is a play dominated by ghosts: Memories, shadows, feelings about things and people from the past that are both specific and universal.
The Stage Manager (Terry Martin, who also directed) narrates from an omniscient P.O.V., walking us through a few days across two decades in the lives of Grovers Corners, N.H., population 2,642. No one here is spectacular, but in that prosaic bubble, spectacular things happen.
Although more than 70 years old, it still has resonance for contemporary issues, from the closeted chorus master (achingly played by Ted Wold) to an off-handed observation (“people are meant to live two by two — ‘taint natural to be lonesome”) that subtly defends gay marriage (Wilder himself was gay).
There’s not a misspent action or false note from anyone in the impressive cast (especially Wold, Joey Folsom and Maxey Whitehead), and Martin’s canny decision to take the bare-bones set and change it, just briefly, into a tactile, realistic tableau is breathtaking. Don’t let your prejudices about the show scare you away — this is the best show of the fall.
WaterTower does a lot with a little in Our Town; over at Fair Park Music Hall, the opposite is true. Shrek the Musical exudes expensivity with admittedly great costumes, big sets and a flying dragon. It’s also about as bloodsuckingly lifeless as a big Broadway musical can be.
At first, you think it might at least capture the snarky, subversive humor that the graphic novel and animated film did. But that track is quickly diluted in favor of banal family-friendly fare with cornpone plotting and sophomoric fart jokes. (Rhyming “classy” with “gassy?” That’s schoolyard nonsense — and not a good school, either.) And Shrek’s Scottish accent doesn’t translate in the hard-to-hear space of the Music Hall.
Hiring David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Rabbit Hole about the death of a child, to write a kiddie musical sounds like a bad punchline, but not as bad as most of the jokes here. Aside from a brilliantly flamboyant turn by David F.M. Vaughn as the prissy Lord Farquaad and some hambone whimsy from Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey (although the character borders on parody — think Trotin Fetchit), it’s more like Dreck the Musical.
The other major flaw of the production — and it would be too time-consuming to list them all — is that it makes smug references to many much better musicals, among them: Wicked, Dreamgirls, The Lion King, Lez Miz, Hairspray and 42nd Street. If you’re reminding your audience that it could be watching a better show, you’re not helping yourself any. By the end, I’d wished the dragon had eaten me — preferably in Act 1.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 1, 2010.