‘Shrek the Musical’ at E.J. Thomas Hall features Northeast Ohio actress

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Freak Flag with Tony Johnson as Pinocchio in Shrek the Musical. (LvR/paparazzibyappointment)

Dragon and Donkey may just be one of the most mismatched couples in musical theater history.

But, boy, are they smitten with each other in Shrek the Musical, which will stomp into town Tuesday and Wednesday at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.

In this irreverently funny musical, based on William Steig’s book as well as the DreamWorks animated film, Dragon, like Princess Fiona, has lived as a shut-in for way too many years in a castle. When this pink-and-purple female monstrosity sets her sights on the diminutive, incessantly blabby Donkey, she lets loose her amorous intentions.

“The first time I see him, I’m in love with him,” said actress Courtney Daniels, who plays the voice of the dragon on the current national tour. Jeremy Gaston is the donkey. “She [Dragon] doesn’t get many visitors and she attached onto that one.”

Daniels, who hails from Pepper Pike and is a 2008 Orange High School graduate, does her work offstage speaking as the dragon as four puppeteers manipulate the magnificent, rhinestoned creature, which takes up the whole stage. The actress closely watches a monitor, which is split into four boxes so she can see the Dragon puppet, two angles for the orchestra conductor as well as the whole stage.

She works with an earpiece and can hang out in her robe with a cup of tea as she performs the big Dragon number Forever. It’s a soulful, uptempo, R&B number that brings out a wide range of emotions and has Daniels doing vocal inflections including laughing, screaming and sobbing.

“It’s fun. I can be as free as I want backstage with the microphone,” Daniels said.

The actress described this big number, written by Jeanine Tesori, as a spoof of the powerhouse tune And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going from Dreamgirls.

“She’s a diva, I tell ya,” Daniels chuckled during a Dec. 18 phone interview. “She’s gorgeous. People just love to see the dragon.”

Daniels, 22, grew up performing at Stagecrafters community theater at Orange High School. She was born in Bermuda and moved from the island to the Cleveland suburb at age 11.

“I saw snow for the first time when I was 11 and I didn’t know how to even react,” Daniels said.

As a youngster, she focused on plays and dark comedies, never anticipating she would have a future in musical theater. Her parents raised her watching MGM movies, and Judy Garland was her idol.

“I sang in church but that was about it,” said the actress, who has an alto belting voice.

She didn’t seriously explore singing until age 18, when she auditioned for the American Musical Dramatic Academy in New York for straight theater and was told she’d be a great fit for the school’s musical theater program.

Daniels, who has worked on Disney Cruise Lines as well as in the development of the musical Disenchanted, a twist on Disney princesses, took four years to finish her two-year conservatory program because she was working professionally so much. She auditioned last April for Shrek and joined the international tour in June, performing in Shanghai and Malaysia for nearly six weeks.

She was cast as a replacement for Dragon, Mama Bear and Mama Ogre, and had only six hours of rehearsal to get the parts under her belt before flying to Malaysia to perform.

“Everyone was supportive onstage and everyone helped me through it,” said Daniels, who described the experience as the biggest challenge in her life.

Playing two other roles onstage keeps Daniels on her toes. As Mama Ogre, she kicks little Shrek out of the house, sending him into the cruel world at age 7 during the tune Big Bright Beautiful World. As Mama Bear, she helps mobilize all the misfit fairy tale characters to reclaim their swamp by starting out the song Freak Flag.

“It kinda keeps the show new and fun and fresh when you play different characters,” said Daniels, who must make a lightning-quick change from Mama Ogre to Mama Bear.

First she must use grease that’s preset on two towels to wipe the green ogre makeup off her face. Three dressers help her, one taking her ogre dress off, another taking her ogre wig off and putting her Mama Bear wig on, and a third helping her into her new Mama Bear dress.

“It definitely makes me a better performer so I can handle a lot,” Daniels said of her one-minute change. “Anybody can do them [quick changes]. You just have to stay calm. You just let them do the work for you.”

The costumes, Broadway originals designed by Tim Hatley, are heavy with beautiful fabric, Daniels said. Her Mama Bear getup includes a wig with earpieces, a prosthetic nose, glasses, and a huge costume with bloomers, fur legs, bear feet and claws.

“She’s a big one: She’s a linebacker, I must say,” Daniels said of Mama Bear, who is nevertheless nimble on her feet. “The weight of it makes the comedy of her.”

Daniels said her mother will see her in the non-Equity tour Shrek for the first time next week in Akron, as will a group of about 50 Northeast Ohio friends and family members.

The actress loves writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s dark comedies, and this time she gets to bring his smart humor to life in a high-energy musical that kids and adults can enjoy on different levels. The show’s vibrant costumes alone make kids light up, Daniels said.

“Just come on by if you want to laugh and enjoy some great contemporary music,” promised the actress, whom audiences will recognize as a human with a very special dragon accessory in the show’s finale.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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