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“Shrek the Musical” takes off at Memorial Auditorium

Members of the cast of 'Shrek the Musical,' which will be performed Thursday through Sunday at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, pose for a photo.

WORTHINGTON — An animated cast of 50 performers, directed by Adrian’s Jason Olson, is poised to lift local spirits from the slumpy swamp of summer doldrums and into the kingdom of self-affirmation, acceptance and sheer silliness.

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“Shrek the Musical,” this summer’s Friends of the Auditorium-sponsored community theater production, employs dance and song to tell the tale of the popular green ogre, Shrek, and his eventful journey — both physical and emotional — to true love and self-acceptance.

Performances at Worthington’s historic Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

“We were looking for a family show, and the Broadway rights to ‘Shrek’ became available on June 1,” explained Olson, an Adrian High School (AHS) social studies teacher and speech coach now directing his eighth community musical.

“This is a very family-friendly show and we are one of the first groups in Minnesota to perform it — really, this will be just the third community theater production of ‘Shrek the Musical’ in the entire state, so this is a rare treat and a hot item.”

A 2013 Worthington High School (WHS) graduate and local stage veteran, Caleb Dirksen, leads the multi-generational cast in the titular role of Shrek, while Melissa Remme, who wowed area audiences two years ago as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” returns to shine as Dirksen’s love interest, Princess Fiona.

“Princess Fiona is not your average princess, and it’s been enjoyable to play a sassy, independent lady,” said Remme. “Fiona is intent on having a perfect happy ending, and when things don’t go as planned, she must learn to embrace who she is and that she and her story, even though a bit unorthodox, are still beautiful.”

Remme and Dirksen are only two of the many strong actors Olson is delighted to have involved, and rehearsals have been ongoing since the start of June.

“I’ll be quite honest — this is one of the most talented casts I’ve ever worked with,” Olson said. “Through and through, it’s a strong singing cast with a great energy, and they’ve been such a joy.”

Another 2013 WHS alumna, Cheniqua Johnson, portrays the Dragon, while AHS junior Tommy McCarthy takes a star turn as Shrek’s lively sidekick, Donkey. Thai Hua plays it for laughs as the height-challenged, villainous Lord Farquaad, and WHS junior Ivan Parga is a scream as a squeaky-voiced Pinocchio.

Olson had this to say about some of his leads.

“Tommy [McCarthy] is very talented, Caleb is the perfect Shrek, Melissa [Remme] is a consummate pro who will give a beautiful performance each night and Ivan [Parga] is doing a magnificent job as Pinocchio — people will really like him,” Olson said. “Thai Hua is doing everything possible to make the role of Lord Farquaad hilarious.

“I feel really good about this cast, and I think the audience will find them amazing.”

Supported by adult assistant Heidi Meyer, music director Erika Bierman, choreographer Kay Williams Prunty, dance captain Laura Koepsell, costume assistant Joyce McCarthy and Memorial Auditorium staff Jacob Forstein and Margaret Hurlbut Vosburgh, Olson has enjoyed the summer to date, including the fact that several parent/child combinations are part of the cast.

Meyer’s third-grade son, Ethan, and seventh-grade daughter, Anna, are examples of that family involvement phenomenon.

“Ethan is on fire for the performing arts, and the most fun for me is seeing when, after the cast first learns the songs, then the choreography, it suddenly all clicks and comes together,” observed Meyer, who plays a small role as a “Happy Mob” extra and has assisted Olson behind the scenes over the past several weeks.

“The energy and momentum are really building, and I’m excited for the dress rehearsal,” she added.

Brianna Darling, a 2012 WHS alumna home from college for the summer months, chose to make participation in “Shrek the Musical” part of her schedule. She sparkles as an animated Gingy (in which role she leads the rousing ensemble piece “Freak Flag”) and Sugar Plum Fairy, demonstrating her considerable vocal and acting chops.

“I literally decided the night before the last audition to go out for ‘Shrek,’ but I’m really glad I chose to do it,” Darling said.

Darling’s days have been filled with work in the Hy-Vee bakery department and summer term college classes, so spending her evenings with the performing arts (she is also a percussionist in the “Amazing” Worthington City Band) has been a welcome change of pace.

“‘Shrek’ is more relaxing, and just fun, compared to work and homework, and I get a lot of my social time there,” Darling said. “I love musicals, and performing, and Caleb [Dirksen] assured me that not knowing a lot of the cast going in wasn’t a problem, and that age differences don’t matter, because we become like a huge close family.”

Dirksen, most recently seen as the generously sized Edna Turnblad in the February WHS production of “Hairspray” and now primed to be painted green as Shrek, certainly believes that.

“You do become a family with the cast as you start hanging out with them, talking to them about their lives and seeing them go out on stage and be ridiculous,” said Dirksen. “Other cast members become your friends for life.”

And the fact that “Shrek the Musical” is all about acceptance of other’s differences doesn’t hurt, either.

“I feel like the music really speaks about true life experiences,” suggested Dirksen. “One of the songs I sing, ‘Who I’d Be,’ talks about all the things people are willing to be or do if the world wouldn’t hold them back because of the boxes and expectations others put around them.

“Shrek feels the burden of the way he looks, and the swamp where he lives, and he needs to find a way to overcome that and realize he must accept the world so it can accept him.”

Olson agrees.

“This is about tolerance and understanding,” Olson said. “It’s a timeless message that you need to be happy about being yourself and willing to accept those who might be a little different from you.”

“To be involved in a musical that encourages people to be themselves is uplifting,” Remme added. “The musical itself is smart, funny and colorful and will be enjoyed by people of all ages.

“I am so hopeful the community will support all of the talented people who have donated their time this summer to put on a fantastic show.”

Tickets for “Shrek the Musical,” with performances Thursday through Sunday at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, 714 13th St., Worthington, are available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Monday and Thursday and 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday at the box office. Tickets will also be sold at the door prior to each performance. For ticket reservations or more information, call 376-9101.