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Posted on Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Pioneer Theatre Guild pilots 'Shrek' for major licensing company

By Jennifer Eberbach

A large cast and crew in Pioneer High School Theatre Guild's production of "Shrek - The Musical," is hard at work rehearsing, building the set, sewing costumes, and making props. They are putting on the DreamWorks-animated-film-inspired musical on weekend days and evenings between April 27 and May 5.

At a rehearsal, a number of students and staff shared their excitement about "Shrek." They are extra excited because major licensing company Music Theatre International asked them to "pilot" an amateur version of the musical before rights are available to other high schools and community theater troupes in June. PTG and a high school in Kenosha, Wisc. will do test runs, so to speak, before anyone else.

Shrek poster.jpg
A Broadway version debuted in 2008, and other runs have happened since. The revised script and score are meant to be more suited to amateur theater - especially their production capabilities and their pocketbooks.

"Every high school and community theater group does MTI shows. They license more than anybody else," explains PTG's co-sponsor and producer Susan Hurwitz, who finds it "a real honor" to pilot the show. She had a good experience doing "Willy Wonka" and "Miss Saigon School Edition" for MTI, in 2008, and looks forward to seeing what they think of "Shrek."

The main goal of piloting is to see how well it works on stage, "to make sure all of the materials we have formatted are working properly," explains John Prignano, MTI Senior Operations Manager.

As for his experience piloting shows with PTG, Prignano says; "Susan has been great at adapting very quickly and efficiently. During the pilot phase the script can change or things get added at the last minute. So, we need to know we are working with someone we can rely on to work with the materials we give them and quickly adapt to things like that. PTG has a well-established program. I know that they are going to do the show as it is written and they are going to do it well."

It takes a lot of people with a variety of skill sets to pull off a single production. High school students do most of it, with help from a number of devoted adults. University of Michigan students are directing the high schoolers in different aspects of the play such as music, choreography, and acting. The show's director Alex Kip graduated from UM's Department of Music Theater. And PTG staff members also flex their creative muscles to pull off the productions.

There are a lot of ways PTG is making "Shrek" its own. This is especially true for things that are not included in the licensing rights - namely choreography, set design, costumes, and direction.

Shrek promo shot Myra Klarman.jpg

Shrek and Fiona.

photo by Myra Klarman | courtesy of the Pioneer Theatre Guild

The costume department was hard at work cutting patterns and sewing when I snuck back stage at a rehearsal. One of the biggest projects is for the character of Dragon, a 20-something-foot-long dragon costume.

"We are trying to make the costumes look as close as possible to the movie, just so the audience sees a strong connection to the characters. That didn't give us as much creative freedom as far as designing goes, but it has been fun to take what the movie has and put a little bit of your own spin on it," says senior and PTG costume department mentor Mitch Fehrle.

Junior Niklas Illenseer, on exchange from Germany, says, "The fairy-tale creatures are especially fun. It's not really possible to do them exactly like the Broadway musical because that was a million-dollar production. And we can't do it exactly like the movie because the characters are different sizes and different shapes that are not like a human body. So, doing the fairytale characters' costumes is the part where we really get into creating the design," he says.

A large cast of student actors will bring the beloved animated characters to life. Some of the many roles include Shrek (Andrew Nazzaro), Fiona (Hannah Hesseltine), Donkey (Isaac Scobby-Thal), Lord Farquaad (Michael Shapiro), and Dragon (Tionna Griffin).

The set is an original creation by Mysti Plummer, a PTG staff member who serves as technical director. "My instinct designing the set was to bring a story book to life. The first level is the bookshelf, which opens up into other things - like a pop-up book. Then on top, there is a giant Shrek book containing backdrops for each scene. You're actually turning the pages of the story book as the show moves along," she says.

Props crewhead Sophie Morris, a junior, has fallen in love with prop making and woodworking doing PTG shows. "I got into it because I like making things, and it's fun being able to make very random things. No show has the same props. I'd love to keep doing theater as a hobby. And I'd never held a drill before, so it was a big deal learning how to use power tools. I didn't think of this before I started, but I would love to do carpentry," she says.

The props for the show include some fun, moving pieces. A life-sized deer will dance around, with legs that swing. And two rats will scurry across the stage by remote control.

Assistant Producer Kate Summers, a senior, has gotten a taste for the business side of theater. "It's been a really interesting experience for me to learn how we got the rights, and what it means to pilot or workshop a show, how to adapt to a new production, and I've done marketing to announce the show. From my standpoint, doing the management side of things has been really cool," she says.

High schoolers from all over Ann Arbor try out for PTG productions. Students from Pioneer, Community, Roberto Clemente, and Skyline are in "Shrek." Hurwitz says, "the interest from students has everything to do with our U-M directors." Along with Kip, other U-M students are involved. Schuyler Robinson is assistant directing the show. Michael Hartung is working with Pioneer senior Claire Crause on original choreography. Musical direction is led by U-M students Robert Ariza, the music director, and Tim Van Riper, the assistant music director.

"These UM students are receiving this incredible education at UM, and it is generous for them to share that with our kids. A lot of them have had professional experience, even though they are still in college and summer stock. They bring a lot of the professional world to us, and they have very high expectations of the kids," Hurwitz says.

"Shrek" performances take place at Pioneer's Schreiber Auditorium. Tickets: Adults $15 Students/65+ Seniors/PHS Staff $10. Tickets available online at our at the door one hour before the show. Performances are scheduled: Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 28, 2 p.m.; Friday, May 3, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 4, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 5, 2 p.m.


Jenn McKee

Mon, Apr 29, 2013 : 6:52 p.m.

What a great opportunity for these students! And it's great to hear from young people working behind-the-scenes, too. I'm hoping to bring my theater-loving, almost-5 year old daughter to one of these performances...

Constance Colthorp Amrine

Sun, Apr 28, 2013 : 3:15 p.m.

Outstanding performance. I brought my family from out out of town, and we thought it would be fun to see since our kids will one day go to Pioneer. We were blown away (by the vocals, the set, the music, the physical talent of the production). I wish there was more coverage on ALL of the talented students. They were all good, and we were particularly impressed by the voices of Tionna Griffin (Dragon) and Michael Shapiro (Lord Farquaad) too. Wow! This is worth seeing for anyone in the community.


Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 2:12 p.m.

Tickets are about 2/3 sold out for opening night already!!


Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 12:19 p.m.

Not sure how big a "pilot" it is since those hundreds of other community productions that go up in June are already in rehearsal, including many nearby...but Whatever...have fun kids..

Mark Tucker

Fri, Apr 26, 2013 : 11:06 a.m.

Get your tickets early. Pioneer productions are second to none!