There’s a difference between being a cartoon and being cartoonish.
“Shrek the Musical” doesn’t always know the difference.
But it doesn’t seem to matter much — at least not to the show’s target family audience, most of whom should be perfectly happy to bask in the presence of beloved characters from the Oscar-winning 2001 animated smash. (Or, less likely, from “Shrek’s” original inspiration: William Steig’s book.)
This touring production of the fractured fairy tale — at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall through Sunday — serves up genially goofy comedy and snappy songs and dances.
It shares the movie’s irreverent sense of humor and has fun incorporating scads of anachronisms and contemporary references, from “Call Me Maybe” to Celine Dion. (Bonus for musical fans: jokey nods to other musicals, among them “The Lion King” and “Les Miserables.”)
There’s a blinking, winking dragon who flies through the air with the greatest of ease (thanks to deft puppeteers) and a chorus of all-singing, all-dancing — not to mention all-wisecracking — storybook characters.
There’s even a Tony-nominated, frequently witty musical score from Jeanine Tesori (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline, or Change”) and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) that explains the childhood traumas of “Shrek’s” central characters: the title ogre (Perry Sook), Princess Fiona (Whitney Winfield) and the villainous Lord Farquaad (the deliciously hissable Christian Marriner).
What there isn’t, alas, is an essential reason for “Shrek” to exist as a musical. (Except, of course, a financial one.)
That makes this production a pleasant diversion, but hardly the instant classic its cinematic inspiration proved to be.
As entertaining as they are, most of the show’s musical numbers interrupt rather than advance the plot, slowing — sometimes even halting — the action.
Yet because those numbers prove highlights — in “Morning Person,” for example, Fiona leads a chorus of tap-dancing rats — it’s easier to sit back, relax and enjoy the fun.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, “Shrek” focuses on the lone title ogre, whose swampy home has been invaded by fairy tale characters exiled from the suddenly conformist realm of Duloc — by none other than the despotic Farquaad.
If Farquaad could only marry a princess, he’d be guaranteed control of Duloc’s throne. He’s heard about one hidden away in a tower, but he needs somebody to rescue her.
Enter Shrek — and his motor-mouthed donkey companion (a relentlessly exuberant Jeremy Gaston), who joins the quest to rescue Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded tower.
Director Stephen Sposito (taking over from original directors Jason Moore and Rob Ashford) keeps things moving, sometimes sporadically, through a succession of sets (adapted from the Broadway original by James Kronzer) more functional than fanciful.
But Tim Hatley’s Tony-winning costumes add droll spark to the show’s once-upon-a-time setting, and the cast’s collective spirit never wilts. (Not even when, on opening night, the sound system sometimes sounded as muddy as Shrek’s swampy home.)
For Sook, it’s not easy being green: his Shrek is a gentle giant who sometimes seems buried by the 30-plus pounds of prosthetics he lugs around with unflagging energy.
That leaves the steal-the-show field to Winfield. Unencumbered by such weighty trappings, she deftly conveys a spunky toughness that makes her Fiona a comedic dream.
It’s not quite enough, alas, to transform “Shrek the Musical” into utterly enchantment.
But by the time “I’m a Believer” (written by, lest we forget, Neil Diamond and imported from the movie) cranks up to cap the happy ending, you’ll be smiling, if not utterly beguiled.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272.