She glows in her latest Grand Rapids Civic Theatre role as teen Princess Fiona in a lively stage adaptation of the 2001 animated Dreamworks film, “Shrek.” “Shrek the Musical” marks No. 18 for the 17-year-old actress.
Smits performs a powerful, moving solo from a Rapunzel-like tower, as fog billows across the stage floor below. She then is joined by her younger and older Princess Fiona characters in impressively layered harmony.
She's part of a talented cast that brings humor, heroics and heart to the production that runs through June 17.
Like the “Shrek” storyline about characters and fairy-tale legends believing and following in their true destinies, Smits learned to follow hers, with the help of her mom, Sandra Smits, principal at Holmes Elementary School in Spring Lake.
“When I was in the third grade, my mom came into my room late one night,” Madison Smits recalled. “She said, 'Muskegon Civic Theater is doing “The Sound of Music.” Do you want to try it?' I was kind of hesitant, but I did it and ended up loving it.”
She's been rooted on stage ever since, performing at Grand Haven High School, Spring Lake Summer Theatre, Central Park Players and Muskegon Civic Theater productions.
Since late March, Smits has rehearsed for her latest role three hours each weeknight. As the opening curtain drew closer in recent weeks, directors added 12-hour rehearsals on Saturdays and Sundays.
“If you love something so much, you'll do anything to make sure you can keep doing it,” Smits said. “Sometimes it's hard when all your friends are hanging out and you have to say, 'I've got to go to theater.'”
It's also difficult to balance high school homework and studying for tests, but her passion provides enough sustenance and energy for it all.
“It's really nice when you find something that makes you so happy that you want to keep doing it,” she said. “I love how happy it makes people. When I first went to Grand Haven High School, I was nervous about meeting people. Being in the shows, you all work together to make something that you all love. That's what's really beautiful about it.”
Besides her role as the princess, Smits said she loves portraying one of the three blind mice in “Shrek the Musical” because of “how sassy and fun it is.”
Smits said she watched “Shrek” movies as a child, but never dreamed she'd be part of a “Shrek” stage production.
“The movies were always something I enjoyed as a kid,” she said. “When I was young, I didn't really know a lot about musical theater. It's funny to think those were the movies I watched as a kid and now I'm in the musical.”
But for Smits, there's more to “Shrek” than a Princess Fiona solo or dancing as a vision-impaired mouse. The story’s message runs much deeper.
“The main point of the story, one of the major themes, is that it's OK to be different and it's OK to be yourself,” she said. “All those fairy tale creatures are sent away from Duloc to this dump. It's hard for them to accept who they are and be proud of who they are. That's one of the major themes I hope that gets across to people. We're all different. It's OK to be different. It's OK to be an individualist.”
From the opening scene when Shrek's ogre parents send him away on his 7th birthday, warning him that his life will be as ugly as they think he is, there's a silent tension looming between what life-altering messages we may send to others, including our own children — and what we, and they, think of themselves.
A grown-up Shrek, played by East Kentwood High School teacher Scott Mellema, learns to live alone in a swamp, until his solitude is stolen by a host of familiar fairy tale figures who appear after being exiled from Duloc by the evil Lord Farquaad (played by Mona Shores Middle School choir director Kyle Cain).
Cain has perhaps the most difficult acting job of all, spending the entire show walking across the stage on his knees as Lord Farquaad, an extremely short man. Cain's role requires him to kneel, with fake legs/shoes tied in front of his thighs. A cape attempts to disguise his kneeling position.
But nothing can disguise the reason he sent the fairy tale characters away — he considers them freaks and wants them out of his self-righteous kingdom.
You'll find all your fairy tale favorites here – Pinocchio (complete with growing nose), Humpty Dumpty, Wicked Witch, Three Bears, Ugly Duckling and many more. Many have great one-line jokes, such as Humpty saying he's a little “off the wall,” and Pinocchio stating “I'm not a wooden boy (nose grows), I have a glandular condition.”
There are a few sassy words that may not seem appropriate for young children — but, chances are, if you don't make a big deal of them, they won't. After all, donkeys have been referred to as “asses” and “jackasses” throughout time.
Spring Lake resident/properties designer Michael Wilson sets the stage with masterful props for the performance — the tower, castle and trees are realistic.
Shrek is a steady Eddy, but the donkey is the star, both in performance and plot line. He brings together two characters who perhaps otherwise would not have recognized their destiny by themselves.
Kind of like a Spring Lake mom, who entered her daughter's bedroom eight years ago with the idea of auditioning for “The Sound of Music.” Now, Madison Smits is hooked on musicals and excited about a future in theater.
“I just love it so much,” she said. “I plan to go to college for a bachelor in fine arts. Hopefully, I'll get some work and some gigs, some off-Broadway shows or even Broadway.”
If you go:
What: “Shrek the Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through June 17
Where: Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, 30 N. Division, Grand Rapids
Tickets: Call 616-222-6650 or visit www.grct.org