The theater world does not usually provide a lot of fear fare for horror hounds. Admittedly, it is hard to come up with something freaky onstage. The Woman In Black, which has been playing in London’s West End for 23 years, is a rare example of crafty creepiness. Broadway usually brings vampires to life in less than satisfying ways, and those shows get staked pretty fast. But combine horror and comedy — a la Young Frankenstein and the off-Broadway Evil Dead: The Musical — and people seem a bit more receptive. The idea of doing Re-Animator: The Musical originally sounded ridiculous. But director and co-book writer Stuart Gordon — who helmed the subversive, sick and funny film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s literary tale — and lyricist/composer Mark Nutter revel in the silliness of it all. For those who don’t know, here’s the film and musical story in a nutshell: an arrogant, brilliant and creepy grad student named Herbert West seeks to re-animated dead corpses by perfecting a serum he worked on with a professor in Switzerland. But at his new American school, he must conduct his illegal experiments in secret from his roommate and girlfriend (who happens to be the Dean’s daughter). Toss in tension with a local professor who has plagiarized West’s mentor’s work, and you can sense how their worlds will collide in a most gruesome fashion. It’s the classic playing God and cheating Death scenario, but with some peppy musical numbers tossed in in this incarnation for good measure.
The production is now playing at the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) through Sunday evening. It is transitioning from a successful, award-winning L.A. run to a month-long run in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, and the show embraces its low budget, crazy scenarios and blood-spurting antics with glee. The audience I saw it with yesterday afternoon came to have a good time and laugh, and they were not disappointed.
Here are eight reasons to enjoy Re-Animator: The Musical, in all of its self-aware cheesiness.
1. Half of the audience sits in designated “spray rows” and have to wear ponchos given to them. The first row gets to have the most fun — being splattered with blood and booze while a lucky two or three receive some fake vomit…straight from the actor’s mouth. Okay, that’s not fun.
2. Graham Skipper, who portrays the crazy re-animation obsessed student Herbert West, delivers the right level of kooky creepiness that fits the musical format well. Anytime he tries to explain something bad that he has done, he traipses around onstage acting all innocent, even when describing horrible things. Great eye and body language too.
3. The classic Re-Animator green is quite present, from the syringes with green lights and glow-in-the-dark bottles to grates lit green from behind.
4. The infamous severed head giving head sequence is included, although they do not go all the way, thankfully. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but hardcore fans will love it.
5. Kudos to keyboardist Brian Kennedy, who performs the entire score on a synthesizer, from gothic orchestrations to lively tangos. Doing everything on synth keeps with the spirit of the original Eighties film soundtrack. (And it’s a lot more economical.)
6. After his character dies then gets re-animated and lobotomized, George Wendt (playing Dean Halsey) hams up his deranged mental state, providing purposely hideous harmonies in one song. He also delivers a genuine scare later in the show.
7. Where else on a theater stage will you get to see a conga line and “Thriller” dance sequence featuring re-animated corpses? (Or a Miskatonic University pep rally?)
8. After being killed and reanimated twice, Rufus the cat gets reanimated again by West to prove to his roomie Dan that his serum works. The duo then proceeds to duet about cheating death, while the cat (puppet) cheerfully dances along in the lab dish. Despite being mangled and having a broken back. Hilarious.