A Shrektacular chat with Jay Laga’aia and Luke Joslin

Once upon a time, there was a lovely princess who was locked in a castle guarded by a terrible, fire-breathing dragon. Many brave knights had attempted to free her from this dreadful prison, but the only one who was able to successfully rescue her was… an ogre?

Shrek’s story is no stranger to most – The 1990 picture book gave way to the Oscar-winning film adaptation, leading the world into a Shrek-mania, with the film and its multiple sequels gaining worldwide praise by both children and adults alike. The unique subversion of the ‘typical’ fairytale and parody of Disney-esque children’s film gives Shrek and his friends many layers… quite like an onion (or, if some prefer, parfait). And the next chapter of our lovely story is, of course, a musical. With all new songs by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change) and book by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, High Fidelity), this side-splitting family show is enjoyable from the opening notes of the overture straight through to the last harmony of the finale.

The Cast of Shrek the Musical – Photography by Grant Leslie (Perfect Images Photography)

Packemin Productions and Riverside Theatre are proud to announce their upcoming production of the Tony Award winning Shrek the Musical, a relatively new show to hit Australian shores. Packemin have a long history of bringing much loved and popular musicals to Parramatta, and this one will be no exception, boasting huge sets, highly skilled creative and technical teams and a phenomenal ensemble cast. Starring Jay Laga’aia (Play School, Star Wars, The Lion King) as Shrek, Luke Joslin (Les Miserables, Avenue Q, The Play That Goes Wrong) as Lord Farquaad, Mikayla Williams (Hairspray, Wicked) as Princess Fiona and Nat Jobe (The Lion King and The King and I) as Donkey, this star-studded show is definitely not one to be missed. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Jay (Shrek) and Luke (Lord Farquaad) about their experiences with the show, being working performers and, of course, all things mean and green.

Introduce yourselves! What should people know about Jay and Luke?

Jay: I am a Samoan Kiwi, so that basically means I can play at least 4 different instruments and I can harmonise. I have worked in Theatre, TV, Film, Radio and I write kids books, am a father of 8 kids and have my own Kids TV show for Channel 7 called “Jay’s Jungle.” I have been very lucky in that my first foray into theatre was as a chorus member in Sweet Charity way back in 1984 at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland. That is where my love of musical theatre was born. I have since worked on many shows, both here and abroad – my first show after graduating was Pirates of Penzance in 1985, in which was Simon Phillips. I then went on to do West Side Story, Harry M Miller’s Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, The Lion King and Wicked, to name just a few

Luke: I studied at the University of Western Sydney and shortly after did a stint at the (then) Actors College of Theatre and Television. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked steadily for the past 15 years with shows such as Guys and Dolls, Annie, Dr Zhivago, The Threepenny Opera, and Sunday in the Park with George. My career highlight would have to be Avenue Q back in 2009 – It was a most scary yet rewarding experience. I won an award for it which was nice.

Nat Jobe and Jay Laga’aia – Photography by Grant Leslie (Perfect Images Photography)

Luke, how has the rehearsal process for Packemin’s Shrek been so far?

Fun, frantic, hot. It’s grassroots theatre making in many ways, which acts as a reminder of why we do it in the first place. It’s easy in a long run to lose sight of the love and passion and instead get bogged down in the Groundhog Day of it all. Packemin reminds us why we do it in the first place – to be surrounded by the passion of youth is infectious.

Jay, what’s your favourite song or scene in Shrek the Musical?

Jay: One of my favourite songs is the Act 1 finale – “Who I’d Be.” It’s a song that forces Shrek to dream a little and imagine who he’d like to be. I am surprised at how many wonderful songs there are in this show, and I think the audience will especially love the part in the show where the Princess and Shrek have a FART-OFF! You’ll know it when you see it!

Tell me a bit about your characters. Do you have anything in common with them?

Jay: Shrek is someone who I can relate to. He is a loner both by choice and circumstance. He’s a dreamer and he also has a really dry sense of humour. Even though he is worldly, he is still naive when it comes to the affairs of the heart. I like him, even though he can be a grumpy old fart!

Luke:  Farquaad’s a narcissistic control freak. Power hungry and self serving. All of this is shrouded in a flamboyancy. He is more funny than scary, so don’t worry parents! I hopefully don’t have anything in common but he’s fun to play.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve had working on this production?

Luke: Being on my knees!

Jay: The actual Scottish accent has been exciting to learn and to overcome. I’ve had the wonderful getting finding my internal Billy Connelly. And of course, the makeup.

Jay, what is it about your makeup and costume that makes it so challenging for you to perform?

The HEAT. I am completely covered from head to toe. On top of that, I have a full head piece and then prosthetics to go over my brows, face, cheeks, chin and nose. I also have Shrek gloves on too. So it’s going to be sweaty.

Luke Joslin as Lord Farquaad – Photography by Grant Leslie (Perfect Images Photography)

Luke, have you ever had a part as physically demanding as this one?

Oh yeah! The Play That Goes Wrong nearly killed me. This is a walk in the park in comparison.

How are you both taking on the vocal challenges of the roles you are playing?

Jay: Playing Shrek is a bit like playing Mufasa, because the costumes were both challenging, With The Lion King, Mufasa’s costume had a bodice made of rope that constricted your breathing, and in Shrek I have prosthetics on my face, and my head to my shoulders are cover in latex. It also makes it harder to hear because my ears are covered in the latex hood I wear.

Luke: I guess like Avenue Q I’ve had to marry the physical challenge with the vocal. Good vocal and physical warm up is key to getting through.

 Why do you think that Shrek is such a globally loved story?

Jay: It is the quintessential story of the underdog, the loner, the misunderstood character who gets the girl in the end. It’s a great lesson because Shrek also judges a book by its cover, thinking that Princess Fiona is like everyone else, when in fact she is just as tormented as he is.

Luke: I guess because it’s not perfect in the sense that it doesn’t lean towards an idealistic love story. We see ourselves in these flawed characters and we love them for it.

If you could play any other role in the show, regardless of gender or appearance, which would you pick?

Jay:  I would love to play the Priest who marries Farquaad and Princess Fiona. I would channel my favourite scene in Princess Bride and reenact it, lisp and all for the Riverside audiences! Ha!

Luke: I think Donkey is a great role, and is played to perfection by Nat Jobe. I could never do it that kind of justice but I do love the role. He’s hilarious and flawed and totally loveable.

Luke, what do you think the most important message of the show is?

To never judge a book by it’s cover. Also the significance of connectedness. Substance over spectacle wins the day eventually.

What do you think makes Packemin’s production unique to other versions of the musical that have been performed?

Luke: Well considering Shrek hasn’t been done much in Australia, it’s hard to know this yet… but what I would say is that thanks to Neil Gooding’s passion and dedication to the cause audiences are in for a treat.

Jay: Packemin Productions allow the general public to see shows that are not always readily accessible. Packemin have a reputation of excellence, and I first experienced that when saw their production of Miss Saigon. I had first seen the show in London in the late 80’s, and Packemin’s was just as good. That was also one of the reasons I agreed to playing Shrek in their upcoming production. Having Professional/Amateur (Pro/Am) productions is essential to the growth of our professional theatre because it gives the dreamers and those who just need a break the platform to learn their craft and to be seen. Shrek highlights some of the best  ‘to be discovered’ talents we have in this country, both on and off stage. I hope to see you in the swamp!

Packemin Productions and Riverside Theatre’s production of Shrek The Musical is now playing until February 17th. Tickets are available at riversideparramatta.com.au.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of AussieTheatre.com. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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