(September 21, 2008)

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Director Jason Moore spent nearly four years readying "Shrek the Musical" for Broadway.

What did he think when he first saw Brian d'Arcy James in full costume and makeup as William Steig's green ogre?

"I thought, 'Oh, thank God. He's finally here,' " Moore says with a laugh. "After all the makeup trials and tests - we tried lots of things to decide what the final picture was going to be - the most important element was Brian."

D'Arcy James leads a cast that includes Sutton Foster ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") as Princess Fiona, Chester Gregory ("Cry-Baby") as Donkey, and Christopher Sieber ("Spamalot") as Lord Farquaad in the stage adaptation of the animated Dreamworks films that featured the vocal talents of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy. The fall's big musical will begin previews Nov. 8 and open at the Broadway Theatre on Dec. 14.

"Shrek" has a book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") and music by Jeanine Tesori ("Caroline, or Change"). The musical is the first outing of DreamWorks Theatricals, an outfit designed to transfer the studio's movies to the stage, following Disney's successful model.

The story covers much the same ground as the original 2001 film: In order to bring peace to his swamp, which is overrun by fairy-tale creatures, a grumpy green ogre is forced to save a princess from a faraway castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. He is accompanied by a chatty donkey who gets under his skin. When he saves the princess, she is not what she appears to be.

"Shrek the Musical" closes its Seattle tryout today before packing up and heading East.

In those crates will be plenty of prosthetic makeup devices, designed by movie makeup artist Michael Marino, that turn d'Arcy James from actor to ogre in an intense process that takes 100 minutes before each performance.

De-Shrekifying takes 40 minutes.

D'Arcy James has calculated that, after a year in the role, he will have spent the equivalent of 27 days getting his makeup applied and removed.

There's at least one concession d'Arcy James must make to the makeup. "On two-show days, I can't go anywhere between shows," he says. "I'm a lot like Fiona, locked in my tower."

Still, the results are stunning. Just ask Foster, his co-star.

"The first time I saw him, I was like 'Oh, my God!' The thing that I love the most is that he's still there. It'd be one thing if they just put him in a giant Shrek head, but he's still there. I still have connection with his eyes.

"I was like 'You're an ogre. How did this happen?' " she recalls.

"It's like nothing I've ever seen," says the actress, who knows about working with green actors. She comes to "Shrek" from "Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein" and another verdigris co-star, Shuler Hensley as The Monster.

Princess Fiona has ogre moments of her own - there's something about a curse - but Foster says her transition is less detailed than d'Arcy James', and is achieved in a fraction of the time.

"I'm a human princess for most of the show," she says, "but I transform several times. At one point, I have six people working on me. I just stand there, in the dark in the wings and there's this machine, this whirlwind around me, this tornado, and then I run back on stage. It's intense, but it's cool."

Director Moore says he can still recognize his college friend from Northwestern inside Marino's prosthetics and behind all of Naomi Donne's green makeup.

"It's Brian with a bald head and green horns, but it's still Brian's big, signature eyebrows and his great smile and his deep eyes. In fact, the face part of his makeup is still his face. It's what surrounds it that's the main addition."

Moore's history with d'Arcy James convinced him he could play the part. "I knew he had the heart to play Shrek, but he also can be scary in a lot of the plays he does. And that combination equals Shrek. I also knew he would have the dedication to put himself through the makeup process, which is really like stepping into someone else's skin, literally."

If Moore was sure, his soon-to-be leading man wasn't.

"When I got the call from my agent, they said 'You have an audition for "Shrek.' " I said, 'Oh! What part?' And they said, 'Shrek.' And I said, 'I know Shrek, but what part?' And they said 'Shrek!' That took a while to sink in. It was unexpected. I was game for trying, but I wasn't sure how it would happen. I had an innate sense of trust of Jason, knowing him and knowing his work so far. I was trusting their decision to hire me as much as I was trusting myself."

Moore knew d'Arcy James is also a master of accents, as evidenced on stage in Martin McDonagh's "Lieutenant of Inishmore" and in Conor McPherson's "Port Authority," so he was confident the Scottish burr wouldn't be an obstacle.

"We've been doing this version so long that I don't remember what Mike Myers even sounds like," Moore says, "but the people at DreamWorks tell me it's a dead ringer."

D'Arcy James knew the accent would take work and practice.

"Scottish doesn't come naturally to me, so I was daunted by it," he says. "The thing that's good is that Mike Myers' isn't a heavy burr. It's a good starting place. I find that when you work on an accent, a lot of it is the repetition of it and then your brain can instinctively find its way to the correct pronunciation of the vowels if you live with it long enough."

Shrek won't lose his accent when he sings. "They toyed with it for a while," d'Arcy James says, "but the accent will remain part of the character in the singing.

"It would be odd, I think, if all of a sudden this defining quality were lost or just went away for the sake of the music."

The man who will be Shrek will endure the 100 minutes in the makeup chair because of the character he gets to create.

"For all of the look and the visual that's required for Shrek, there's a lot of inside-out that you have to do to really get the emotional life correct and connecting all those dots before you put the shoes and the mask on," he says. "Without that, it's animatronics. It's robots. So why bother?

"And it's what inside that appeals to Fiona."

To find his inner ogre, d'Arcy James looked to other works.

"I think a lot about Scrooge and how he's forced to deal with the outside world in a way," he says. "There are lots of great classic examples of this story, but it's something you have to pay attention to and get right."

So what did d'Arcy James think when he first looked in the mirror and saw an ogre looking back?

"It was strange," he says. "I could recognize a small part of me, but I was mostly inundated by green. I'm accustomed to it now because I'm in it so much, and I see the reflection in the mirror and it's not as jarring."

Then came his first audience.

"I was very relieved when we did a photo shoot in New York to see the faces of our producer, Bill Damaschke (president of DreamWorks Theatricals), Tim Hatley, our costume and set designer, and Jason - and seeing their jaws drop.

"And I thought, 'Good. I've still got the job.' "

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