Review: 'Re-Animator: The Musical'
H.P. Lovecraft Cult Film Becomes Stage Musical
San Diego may have a lot of good theater but it doesn't have "Re-Animator: The Musical." That's why a carload of San Diego horror buffs -- including myself -- headed up to LA's Steve Allen Theater this past weekend. You can listen to my NPR feature here.
If you love horror then you probably know the 1985 cult classic "Re-Animator" starring Jeffrey Combs as a brilliant but over-eager med student researching the reanimation of dead corpses. The film was based on an H.P. Lovecraft story and was brought to the screen by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. The film won fans for its inspired mix of extreme gore, horror, and comedy. Much to my delight, the stage musical keeps that mix intact and kicks up the comedy.
What made the musical interesting to me was that Gordon would be involved in translating the film to the stage. That insured that the spirit of the film would be brought intact to the stage. This isn't the first cult horror to go from screen to stage musical. We've already had "The Little Shop of Horrors," "Evil Dead: The Musical" and "The Toxic Avenger Musical." So the notion of tapping into an ardent film fan base has been exploited with mixed success in the past.
"Re-Animator" had been Gordon's feature film debut. Prior to that he had been the founder and artistic director of the Organic Theater of Chicago. So he had a background in theater. Prior to this his most recent stage work was "Nevermore," a one-man show featuring "Re-Animator" star Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe. (That play had a brief engagement in San Diego and Combs might be familiar to locals since he appeared at the Old Globe Theater in a production of "A Comedy of Errors.")
"Re-Animator" is one of my all-time favorite horror films. I wanted to go to the stage musical mostly out of curiosity but I was thrilled by what I got. "Re-Animator: The Musical" boasts great songs, a lively cast, a healthy respect for the film mixed with a willingness to develop a personality of its own, and a genuinely fun time at the theater. I admit I was favorably inclined toward the play because of my affection for the film, but the stage production so far exceeded my expectations that I was ready to buy tickets for another night if they had been on sale in the lobby. My friends were equally ecstatic.
A chief attraction for me was the fact that the special effects for the play were being done by the imaginative team that worked on the low budget 1985 film: Tony Doublin, John Naulin, and John Beuchler. According to the press release " the blood will flow so freely that the first row will be designated as a 'splash zone.'" This immediately prompted me to pull out my mad scientist box of Halloween costumes to bring up to wear at the show.
Fortunately for me I have some horror buff friends who were equally eager to head up to LA to see what this "Re-Animator: The Musical" was all about. The play had been in rehearsals for two weekends and had its world premiere on March 5. My friends and I went up for the show on Sunday. We arrived an hour and a half before the doors opened so we could get splash zone seating (the tickets are not reserved seats). In preparation of being splattered, we had dressed ourselves in bloody lab coats and thick black plastic aprons. Unfortunately, we left the safety goggles in the trunk of the car. We could have used them because there's a point in the play when Graham Skipper, the actor playing Herbert West, sprayed the audience with blood. When we spoke with him after the play, he said he saw our costumes and sprayed us particularly well, which explains why we had blood in our hair, eyes, and mouth, and had to duck down to avoid being completely drenched. We were laughing so hard we missed hearing West singing his version of "My Way." The blood, though. was thin and pale. It smelled like soap but tasted salty-sweet and wasn't sticky at all. I was quite curious what they used.
Miguel Rodriguez, founder of Horrible Imaginings Film Fest and the host of Monster Island Resort Podcast, said, "The music, actors, and pure entertainment value exceeded all of my expectations. What was really impressive is how director Stewart Gordon was able to present so many locations with so little space to work with. The audience was taken every step of the way. This really pumped some life into musical theater!"
The Steve Allen Theater was small and very cozy. One of the benefits of the intimate setting is that you get to appreciate musician Peter Adams who played all the music live on keyboards. Mark Nutter wrote the songs/lyrics that play off the film's script with enough faithfulness to make the cult fans happy but enough freshness to revitalize the material. There is also use of the film's original and memorable theme (which was itself a riff on Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" music). The reanimated corpses even do a kind of conga line to the theme at one point, and that was priceless. It could become the "Time Warp" dance for a new generation.
"The most amazing thing about 'Re-Animator the Musical' is how accessible it is," said Phil Lorenzo, managing director of the San Diego Asian Film Foundation, "This is a musical based on a cult horror film that is able to celebrate it's roots and then through clever use of props, interactivity, and amazing music and performances open this classic genre film to the masses. What a great show!"
The whole production had a wonderful do-it-yourself quality that worked amazingly well at engaging the audience. We are so jaded by big budget productions that try so hard to make everything look seamless and flawless and "real." But on a certain level that distances the audience from the production. We become mere spectators.
"Re-Animator: The Musical" asks us to participate, to fill in details with our imagination. It's like those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films where it's "com'on kids let's put on a show." And everyone feels like pitching in to help. In the case of the audience, the pitching in means a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to go along for the ride and have a blast. And that's easy to do because the production has such a sense of fun as well as an inspired sense of ingenuity when dealing with the limitations of their space and budget. The actors, making full use of the space, even come into the audience and shine a flashlight on each person in the front row and pretend each one is a cadaver in the morgue. Each "victim" is described… this one's a burn victim, this one was mauled by a grizzly, etc.
"The gags were fun," said San Diego filmmaker Sanns Dixon, "Maybe even over the top, and only work to pull the audience more into the experience. The blocking succeeded in making the small theater feel so much larger."
The set design by Laura Fine Hawkes was especially smart. It is essentially a wall with a door and that serves as the door to the morgue, to the basement lab, to the dean's house, etc. The actors walk through the door and when they come back around onto the stage they are now in the location they were heading into. This design means a minimal amount of sets and movement of props. It's also elegant in its simplicity. It's also a fitting reflection of film grammar as it serves up a kind of edit or cut taking us from one location to the next. And when a young couple needs to be shown in bed, the bed is presented upright with the actors standing against it yet we buy that they are lying in bed. Again clever and fun.
But the most fun comes from the special effects. I can't tell you how much delicious it is to watch practical effects done "live" on stage – like having an actor beheaded and the severed head picked up and put on a table where it begins to talk. It all happens before your eyes and you know you're being tricked yet it's still magical and a wicked fun. Major kudos to the effects team for their work.
"I was amazed at how fun the experience of 'Re-Animator the Musical' was," Dixon said, "The actors were committed to portraying who the original characters were, not some updated interpretation or re-imaging. The music worked on every level. From comedy to suspense, the score is every bit as much of a great performer as any of the cast. It was refreshing to see this classic adapted with such a high level of love and respect. I will be back."
"Re-Animator: The Musical" is definitely tailored for the cult horror crowd but that's not to say it's limited to them. Anyone with a sense of fun will enjoy this. But anyone arriving at a theater where the seats are wrapped in saran wrap the way Dexter prepares a murder scene should know they are not in for a conventional theater experiment. I plan to see the play again. And I will bring more friends and wear a costume again. The producer, Dean Schramm, seeing our quartet of mad scientists on Sunday night, came over and introduced himself and started chatting with us. That really made our night. It's nice to have one's geekiness rewarded and recognized for what it is, a sincere sign of affection and appreciation for "Re-Animator."
Can't wait to see it again! The production is scheduled to run through March 27. I'm hoping it does well enough to get an extended run and maybe even come down to San Diego.