Carol Stream native steps into title role in 'Shrek the Musical'

Life is good for Eric Petersen.

After playing several ensemble roles in the Broadway production of "Shrek the Musical" and understudying the lead (which he performed several times), the Carol Stream native will slather on the green greasepaint and step into Shrek's enormous boots as the star of the show's national tour.

And that's not the best thing to happen to the 29-year-old actor.

The best thing is becoming a first-time dad, which he will likely be by the time "Shrek" launches its national tour Tuesday, July 13, at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.

"It's an embarrassment of riches," said Petersen, whose wife is expecting their first child, a daughter. "I feel blessed that they're all happening at the same time."

It's all a bit overwhelming, Petersen said. He admits to feeling the pressure of starring in a big-budget show, part of a billion-dollar franchise that originated with DreamWorks' hit animated film from 2001. So far, he has managed to keep the nerves at bay and relish playing a role he says suits him well.

"Playing this ogre is the perfect thing for me. It's a leading man in the body of a scary, green ogre," said Petersen, who has always considered himself more of a character actor than a leading man.

"I don't have Hugh Jackman's square jaw," he said, laughing.

In fact, Petersen, who stood 5 feet 2 inches and weighed 95 pounds his freshman year at Glenbard North High School, was always something of the class clown.

"I always tried to get people to laugh so I wouldn't get picked on," he said.

He had no interest in theater until tryouts for the football team left him battered, bruised and rethinking his choice of extracurricular activities. A friend suggested he try out for the fall play. By junior year, he had played a few leads. He went on to major in theater at Bradley University. After graduation he moved to New York City, where he did several shows with Theatreworks USA. He did a couple of roles on the "Law & Order" series and played William Barfee in the first national tour of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" before joining the cast of "Shrek" a year ago.

The musical, which incorporates the childhood back stories of Shrek and Princess Fiona, differs from the movie. And the touring version differs from the show that premiered on Broadway in 2008.

"The show got a facelift, a tummy tuck" over the six-week rehearsal process, said Petersen. Some parts got cut, others were enhanced and, in the case of the dragon, completely made over.

"The dragon is brand new," said Petersen who describes it as "one of the coolest things you will ever see on stage."

While a lot of musicals claim family-wide appeal, this one really has it, said Petersen.

"I promise you, you will get your money's worth. You will see a big, beautiful show," he said.

Playing the lead in such a production requires some heavy lifting. Literally. The costume weighs 45 pounds. Each boot weighs five pounds and adds three inches to his 5-foot-11-inch frame.

"It's a massive, massive project to become Shrek," said Petersen.

The transformation requires he spend one hour, 45 minutes in the makeup chair. It takes another 15 to 20 minutes to get dressed.

"Once (the costume) is on, you can't help but be that ogre," he said.

At that point, the sauntering and grimacing become second nature. But ultimately, it's the character's humanity and the show's message - that people are not necessarily what their appearance suggests - that resonate with Petersen.

"In life we get pigeonholed," he said. "You're the funny guy, the uptight guy, the guy who's only concerned with work or the guy who's always getting drunk."

Petersen was always pegged as the fun-loving guy.

"But I'm more than that," he said. "I'm grown up."

And life is good.

"Shrek the Musical" star Eric Petersen belts out a song at the Taste of Chicago. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer