Sometimes you just have to trust the kids.
The first glimpse of Wheelock Family Theatre’s Shrek is a surprise. Instead of the round, green, smoothly computer-animated ogre of the movie, this Shrek is tall and hairy, with a lumpy green headpiece and mossy dreads. But as played by Christopher Chew in Wheelock’s “Shrek the Musical,” running through May 24, this ogre was a hit with the children who made up at least half of Friday’s opening night audience. They laughed and cheered and clapped in all the right places.
The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie or the Broadway version. Shrek just wants to be alone in his swamp, but he’s beset by fairy tale characters exiled there by Lord Farquaad. To win back his turf, Shrek and his sardonic sidekick, Donkey, must rescue the Princess Fiona from her lonely, dragon-guarded tower and deliver her to Farquaad, who wants her for his bride. There is a curse, which can only be broken by a true love’s kiss, and at the end we learn the inevitable lessons about embracing one’s own true nature and how it’s what’s inside a person that counts.
Chew may not wear the green mask used on Broadway to re-create the movie ogre, but he’s a fine embodiment of Shrek’s lumbering solitude. Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Donkey helps bring him down to size with a performance that reminds less of Eddie Murphy’s patter in the movie than Don Cheadle’s wry exasperation. Shonna Cirone is in fine voice as Fiona, who’s much easier to warm up to after she and Shrek perform a flatulent duet.
Mark Linehan is a comic standout as the slight-statured villain Farquaad, who is more of a buffoon than an actual threat. Linehan gets a lot of laughs from what must be an exhausting performance — moving around the stage on his knees, which are hidden in his costume, while manipulating a stubby pair of prop legs in front of him. It seems weird, though, that a play about embracing differences and looking past outward appearances should get so many laughs at the expense of a character’s height.
Props to the large group playing the fairy-tale creatures and other ensemble roles, several of them teens and students. Carla Martinez as the Wicked Witch and Amy Barker as the Red Queen have their moments, but the biggest laughs go to Cheeyang Ng as a falsetto-voiced Pinocchio.
One other performance of note is by the Dragon, who makes a couple of well-timed dramatic appearances and manages to display a real personality, despite being a giant orange puppet manipulated from beneath by several black-clad cast members.
Parents should know that the 7:30 performance ends around 10, which might pose a bedtime issue for some families. But on Friday there was very little of the acting-up that can arise from a tired young audience when a performance runs too long. So we’ll let the kids have the last word on this too.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.