For the cast and crew of Ball State’s production of “Shrek the Musical,” getting hands-on direction from Tony Award-winning actress Sutton Foster — who originated the role of Fiona on Broadway — has been like a fairytale come true.

“Sutton has so much experience, and working with her has been a great opportunity to learn how industry professionals work,” said Zack Keller, a freshman musical theater major cast as the Mad Hatter. “She’s a great role model because she knows how to combine her talent, intelligence and hard work to be successful.”

The staging of “Shrek the Musical” is one of the Department of Theatre and Dance’s most ambitious projects, said Bill Jenkins, who is co-directing the musical with Foster, a friend of the university for more than a decade.

“We’ve never put on a show quite as demanding as this,” said Jenkins, chairperson of the department. “In terms of design elements alone, it’s our biggest, most involved production.”

“Shrek the Musical,” based on William Steig’s children’s book “Shrek!” and the 2001 Oscar-winning animated film, will be performed at University Theatre at 7:30 p.m. March 31 and April 1-2 and 4-8, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on April 2 and 8. Tickets are available at the University Theatre box office and online.

A relationship that’s lasted more than a decade

To help Ball State students prepare for the story — an anti-social ogre who, with the help of a few new friends, experiences a change of heart — Foster spent a week visiting campus in mid-February.

Sutton Foster addresses the crowd at Ball State University spring commencement in 2012.

Foster’s deep ties to Ball State include her role as commencement speaker in spring of 2012. (Ball State photo)

During her stay, she met with senior acting majors to discuss film and TV, gave critiques to freshman musical theater majors and attended a week’s worth of evening rehearsals for “Shrek the Musical.”

“I didn’t know what to expect and was like, ‘I’m going to be intimidated’ but then we started working with Sutton, and it was amazing,” said sophomore musical theater major Amanda Walker, who will play Fiona. “It’s really cool to talk to someone who knows this show and this character already.”

Foster became involved with Ball State in 2004, the year she began making regular appearances at the theater department’s annual New York City senior showcases. Her most recent visit to campus marks a full-circle moment. When she paid her first visit to campus in January 2010, she was starring in the Broadway production of “Shrek the Musical.”

“I got to work one-on-one with all the students, and I was hooked,” Foster recalled, “and so every year since, I’ve come to Ball State. There’s a kindness and a genuineness and an earnestness about the students and faculty here that I’m very impressed with.”

Foster also helped direct Ball State’s 2012 staging of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” another show in which she played a lead role on Broadway.

Two student actors face each other, smile and hold hands. A third student actor observes them.

Weatherington (as Donkey) looks on as Pender (as Shrek) and Walker (as Fiona) share a tender moment while rehearsing a scene. (Photo by Don Rogers)

What she loves about “Shrek the Musical” is how it “has an enormous heart and is all about friendships and relationships.”

The show’s endearing humor, familiar to fans of the cartoon, captured the hearts of the leads of Ball State’s cast, which includes Walker and juniors Reagan Pender as Shrek and Tony Weatherington as Donkey.

“Donkey is so full of energy that this role is demanding. It requires a lot of stamina to make it through all the songs,” Weatherington said. “It’s fun energy, but I’ve got to keep it at a 10.”

Foster said, “Sending him videos of puppies was the best way I could demonstrate the kind of playfulness we want from his character.”

In the title role, Pender said he learned to convey the subtlety of emotional walls gradually coming down. “The hardest song for me is ‘Build a Wall’ because vocally, it’s challenging, but it’s also this sort of breaking point for Shrek.”

Ball State’s welcoming community

Keller said working with a Broadway veteran like Foster has been a surreal yet awesome experience. “Sutton really has a grasp on analyzing characters. Her guidance pushed me in the right direction of what I want the Mad Hatter to be.”

Ball state professor acts as voice coach to a student at rehearsal for Shrek the musical.

Bill Jenkins, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance and co-director of the musical, works with student cast member Jessica Lawrence during rehearsal. Jenkins said “Shrek the Musical” is one of the most demanding shows the department has ever staged. (Photo by Don Rogers)

While her involvement with “Shrek the Musical” has been a highlight for the cast, the actress —whom students have described as “personable,” “humble” and “kind” — is quick to give credit to Jenkins.

“Bill’s really the one directing the show, and I’m the one coming in as a little nymph, throwing a bunch of stuff at the cast.”

Foster, whose first connection to Ball State was as a fan of alumnus and late-night TV host David Letterman, said every return to campus reaffirms her commitment to the university and its theater program.

“My work at Ball State is really important to me, and I wish I could give more of my time. One of the reasons I keep coming back is that I do feel as if the faculty and students are like family.”

Each new class ready to work with the actress understands the privilege of that experience.

“It’s unbelievable that as a freshman theater student, I’m able to work with someone so talented,” Keller said. “This will be a show I’ll vividly remember.”