Donnie Hammond

By Rita Charleston

Once upon a time, in a faraway swamp, there lived an ogre named Shrek whose precious solitude is shattered suddenly by the invasion of annoying fairytale characters. They were all banished from their kingdom by the evil Lord Farquaad. Determined to save their home — not to mention  his — Shrek cuts a deal with Farquaad and sets out to rescue Princess Fiona, who is to become Farquaad’s bride.

Directed by Glenn Casale, “Shrek The Musical,” the award-winning Broadway production based on the Oscar-winning movie, continues at the Walnut Street Theatre through Jan. 5.

Providing the off-stage voice of Dragon, a 25-foot-long winged puppet, operated by a team of on-stage puppeteers, is Mt. Airy native Donnie Hammond. According to Hammond, Dragon is originally depicted as a ferocious guard who challenges Shrek and his sidekick Donkey in their quest to locate the princess. However, she later reforms and is heard, thanks to Hammond, singing “Forever.”

“I had never seen ‘Shrek’ before and didn’t really know anything about the musical,” Hammond volunteers. “I knew about the movie, but that was it. Luckily, I had performed at the Walnut before, so I was called in to audition, and I got the part.”

The actress admits that growing up in My Airy provided the perfect backdrop for her ambitions to begin her theatrical career. Attending  Bishop McDevitt High School before heading off to Bloomsburg University, Hammond sang in her church and blossomed in her warm, family-friendly neighborhood surrounded by many of her own extended family members.

“I loved growing up there in Mt. Airy,” Hammond insists. “It was beautiful, and I had family close by and enjoyed going to each other’s houses on holidays. I also had lots of friends in the neighborhood, so it was wonderful.

“It was also wonderful to sing and dance. I always loved the theater and performing. In fact, my mother said I could dance before I could walk. But I never really considered making a career out of it. So after a year at Bloomsburg, I returned home and started working full-time as a hair stylist. But I never forgot my love for the theater, so I was also doing community theater without realizing I could actually be doing it professionally one day.”

Well, one day that opportunity presented itself when Hammond was hired to appear in “Jamaica” at the  now defunct Prince Theatre. That appearance eventually led to her getting her equity card and joining the actor’s union.

Today, enjoying every aspect of “Shrek,” Hammond said the show remains quite relevant today. “The fairytale creatures get kicked out of where they live because the leader wants everyone to look the same, be the same and act the same. But the fairytale characters are all different. Everywhere they go gets worse and worse. They have no control over anything that happens to them, and they just want to find a place to live. We sing a wonderful song called ‘Freak Flag’ about just being who you are and being okay with that.”

Now 35, single, and living in South Philadelphia, Hammond said the best part of doing this show is watching all the children get so excited about what they’re seeing in this big holiday show. “I’ve worked professionally now as an actress for about the last 10 years,” Hammond explained, “and I’d love to do it as much as possible. There are definitely shows on Broadway I’d love to do one day, but what I’m doing now is just great and very satisfying.”

“Shrek” continues at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., through Jan. 5. For tickets call 215-574-3550.

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