Though ERIC PETERSEN ’03 is green, envy has nothing to do with it. Quite the opposite. In just a week's time, the 29-year-old made his debut as the title character in the national tour of Shrek the Musical, sang the national anthem at Wrigley Field, and welcomed his first child, Sophia. "I feel like the luckiest man on earth." he said.
After playing ensemble parts and understudying the lead in Shrek the Musical on Broadway, Petersen landed the title role in the hit Dreamworks musical that will travel to more than 25 cities over the next year. The show, based on the blockbuster animated movie, kicked off July 13 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago, just two days before Petersen's wife, Lisa Marie Morabito, gave birth to their daughter.
His new lifestyle is a bit overwhelming, Petersen admitted. "It's definitely a balancing act," he said. "When I'm at home, I try to be the best dad I can be. When I'm on stage, I try to be the best Shrek I can be."
Green all ogre
While stepping into the role of first-time dad is no easy task, becoming Shrek is also a commitment — one that requires Petersen to be at the theater two hours before the curtain rises.
First there's the makeup, which takes about one hour and 45 minutes to apply. A green headpiece creates Petersen's shoulders, neck, and distinct Shrek ears, and prosthetic pieces attached with special adhesive give him a larger chin and nose. Only the areas around Petersen's mouth and eyes are painted green.
After makeup comes what Petersen calls his "fat suit" — 45 pounds of foam and other stuffing that round him out. Add that to three-inch-high, five-pound shoes, and Petersen stands over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds. Big, huge, and fat are words Petersen used to describe how he feels after his transformation — not to mention completely Shrek-like.
"The amazing makeup and costume design do a lot of the characterization work for me. They really help make Shrek real and palpable to the audience," Petersen said. "The process is long and the costume is heavy, but it's so worth it."
Petersen removes the fat suit during intermission, but he remains all ogre from the shoulders up. On two-performance days, the intricate makeup is applied beginning around noon and isn't removed until the end of the second show (about nine hours later). The de-greening process takes about 40 minutes, followed by a facial that removes the adhesive.
The ogre within
While the fat suit and the grease paint help make Shrek more than a two-dimensional animation, it's Petersen's acting and singing that bring the lovable ogre to life.
"What's great about the musical is it shows a lot more of the character's layers," Petersen said.
The musical opens with Papa Ogre and Mama Ogre — characters that were created for the stage production — kicking Shrek out of the house at age seven. Later in the first act, the audience also sees Princess Fiona's banishment at a young age. "You see their childhoods and why they became who they are," Petersen said. "I think it's exciting to shed more light on the characters with a slightly different story line and obviously a lot more songs."
Petersen, thinking back to the days when he was seen as the goofy guy in school, said he tries to make Shrek more than an ugly swamp creature. "What I try to do is show that everyone has something in common with Shrek. Just like him, we all get pigeonholed at some point, and people have certain expectations of us. Shrek is not just a mean, ugly ogre. He is so much more than that, and I think that's something we all have in common."
Journey to the top
Petersen's love of theater sprouted in high school. At 5 feet 2 inches and 95 pounds at the time, trying out for the school musical was a better fit than playing football. After landing several leading roles at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream, Petersen decided to pursue theater at the collegiate level. After visiting Bradley's campus and seeing The Kentucky Cycle at the Hartmann Center, Petersen knew the Hilltop would be his home.
"Bradley may not be known as a theater powerhouse, but almost everything I've learned, I learned at Bradley," Petersen said. "I learned everything from how to carry a show, to how to be professional, to how to do a newspaper interview. I got a lot of hands-on, personal attention, and my professors saw something in me that gave me the confidence to go for it."
Petersen, who joined Sigma Nu at Bradley, said a few favorite roles he played at the Hartmann Center include Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and Gene Glimmer in Side Man. He also got his first paid acting gig as a sophomore.
"The Phantom of the Opera was at the Peoria Civic Center, and I was paid $100 to dress up as the phantom and walk around a pre-party for an hour saying 'I'm the phantom of the opera.'"
During his senior year, Petersen attended the Midwest Theatre Auditions in St. Louis and got a job performing at the Barn Theatre in Michigan following graduation. That's where he met his wife, and they later moved to New York City together.
Petersen got his big break in 2007 when he landed the role of William Barfee in the first national tour of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In July 2009, he joined the Broadway cast of Shrek the Musical.
"After this tour, I would love to do more work on Broadway and on TV, and maybe even in movies," Petersen said. "I want to do it all."
His advice for Bradley students hoping to make it big? "Always say yes. You have to start somewhere, so if someone asks you to do something, do it."