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Re-Review: ‘Re-Animator The Musical’

Award-Winning Musical Based On 80s Cult Film Re-Animates

Jesse Merlin loses his head as Dr. Hill and George Wendt is Dean Halsey in

Credit: Tom Hargis

Above: Jesse Merlin loses his head as Dr. Hill and George Wendt is Dean Halsey in "Re-Animator: The Musical."

Some things just won't stay dead. Thankfully, "Re-Animator The Musical" (opening May 3 at the Hayworth Theater in LA) is one of them. It is reopening tonight for a 10-week run at the Hayworth Theater in LA before heading to New York and then heading to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Both showcases could lead to further re-animation!

I have been following "Re-Animator The Musical" since I saw an online ad for it more than a year ago announcing that if you arrived early you could sit in the "splash zone" and get soaked in blood. I even did an NPR feature on the production.

Stuart Gordon turned his 1985 cult classic film "Re-Animator" into a musical horror comedy with the help of producer Dean Schramm and witty composer/lyricist Mark Nutter. Based on an H.P Lovecraft tale, the film and play both involve a gifted but mad student who has found a way to bring the dead back to life. Only problem is that when they re-animate, they are pretty pissed off and braindead.

Just recently the play took home an armload of awards (six L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, an Ovation Award and L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards for everything from Best Musical to Best Blood Effects) and deservedly so. The play does everything bloody right. It keeps just enough of the film elements to keep those fans happy and brings enough new inventiveness to please a whole new theater audience. I can't emphasize enough how important cleverness is to the success of the play. It opened last year as the Broadway "Spider-Man" musical was in the throes of technical difficulties. The two productions reveal provide an interesting comparison. "Spider-Man" tried to bring big budget Hollywood effects to the stage, forcing the techniques and specialties of one medium onto another. "Re-Animator," on the other hand, decided that it had certain limitations of budget and space and took those limitations and ran with them. It embraced its limitations and turned them into strengths.

I reviewed the play when it first opened and my opinion has not changed. "Re-Animator: The Musical" boasts wickedly funny songs, a lively cast, maintains healthy respect for the film mixed with a willingness to develop a personality of its own, and is a genuinely delightful time at the theater. I confess that I was favorably inclined toward the play because of my affection for the film, but the stage production exceeded all my expectations.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Tom Hargis

Graham Skipper as Herbert West, and Chris L. McKenna as Dan and Rachel Avery as Megan in "Re-Animator: The Musical."

The play that opens tonight is a slightly modified version and the changes are for the best. The biggest change and definite improvement is that the play is now performed without intermission. This makes it more streamlined, and without any interruptions in the rapidly developing and increasingly audacious plot. There are some new song additions, all good, and a few trims (but nothing painful). There are also some nice new additions, which I do not want to reveal but oh man what fun!

One of the things that pleased me most about the production was that they went back to the imaginative effects team that worked on the low budget 1985 film to create the effects for the play. Tony Doublin, John Naulin, and John Beuchler have come back together to create the onstage gorefest of "Re-Animator The Musical," and holy crap what a bloodbath they have created. The chief attraction here is an intestine that jumps out of a re-animated body to strangle someone but not before the intestine sprays blood out into the audience members sitting in the splash zone (this is completely voluntary and if you wish to remain dry just sit at least 6 rows back, although the actor aiming the intestines has been known to hit the back row if provoked).

Having just done an NPR feature on the practical effects championed at Monsterpalooza, I have even more respect and affection for the work done by "Re-Animator's" effects team. I don't know if I can convey the delicious pleasure of watching practical effects done "live" on stage -- like a beheading in which a body/head switcheroo is handled so elegantly that all ou can do is grin like a little kid dazzled my a magic trick. It all happens right before your eyes and you know you're being tricked yet it's still magical and wicked fun.

John Buechler, one of the visual effects artists, told me when I interviewed him for NPR, "When you have a practical effect on stage or on screen it does have a tendency to grab the audience better because the actors have a tendency to react to it more realistically because it's honestly there and the audience is there in the moment experiencing whatever happens.

Like the decapitation. Herbert West (Graham Skipper) cuts off the head of Dr. Hill (Jesse Merlin) and then the doctor, played Merlin, has to spend the rest of the play carrying his own head around.

"There is a puppetry rig where I am carrying my own decapitated head around while singing. There’s a long smock but you can see wheels underneath it so there's clearly some kind of seat. A lot of people can't figure out how we do it."

You can't help but cheer on the performers as they deftly pull off these sleights of hand, which is why I am about to go see the play for the 8th time. In fact there are diehard fans who have seen it more than 2 dozen times and many dress up in costumes as well. The play inspires a devoted following and it inspires us to show our appreciation in clever ways. One fan had a puppet head on a tray and the head's mouth moved, imitating a scene from the play.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

Some of the diehard fans (in Miskatonic University Cheer Squad t-shirts) of "Re-Animator The Musical" after a preview performance. Actor Chris McKenna (the one not in an orange shirt) plays Dan in the play.

I know LA may seem a long drive to see a play but my friends and I have made that long drive repeatedly and it is well worth the effort. Make it a fun road trip with friends and take a group to the play. If you are a fan of the film, a horror fan, or just a fan of bold, inspired theater, "Re-Animator The Musical" is simply a must-see. It pays homage not just to the cult B-horror film that inspires it but also to Grand Guignol theater that reveled in blood, gore, and ripe tales of horror and terror. It also engages the audience in such a playful manner that it proves impossible to resist. So what are you waiting for? Go, get soaked in the splash zone. You won't regret it. I'm even trying to figure out a way to get to Scotland to see it in Edinburgh, I mean the home of bloody Macbeth would be the perfect setting for "Re-Animator The Musical's" steeping in blood.

Performance information and tickets are available on the "Re-Animator The Musical" website. You can also follow them on FaceBook.

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