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Arts & Culture

Rants And Raves: Confessions of a ‘Re-Animator The Musical’ Groupie

Graham Skipper plays Herbert West and Jesse Merlin is the decapitated Dr. Hill in Stuart Gordon's stage adaptation of his 80s cult classic, "Re-Animator The Musical."
Thomas Hargis
Graham Skipper plays Herbert West and Jesse Merlin is the decapitated Dr. Hill in Stuart Gordon's stage adaptation of his 80s cult classic, "Re-Animator The Musical."

Horror Musical Plays In Vegas Through Jan. 18

I have a confession. I am a “Re-Animator The Musical” groupie and here’s why you should be, too.

My obsession with “Re-Animator The Musical” began in March 2011. I had always loved Stuart Gordon’s 1985 low budget, cult horror film “Re-Animator,” so when I heard there was to be a musical stage version and with a “splatter zone,” well I was hooked.

Both the play and the film are based on an H.P. Lovecraft story about Herbert West, a young medical student who discovers a reanimating agent that can bring the dead back to life… but the dead aren’t too happy about coming back.

In the years since it opened I have seen it more than two-dozen times including following it to Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland and most recently to Las Vegas, where I saw it four times in three days. I can’t get enough. I constantly have songs stuck in my head, including one about “an outstanding basement.” I even learned the Miskatonic Fight song by heart and have helped teach audiences how to sing-along.

But what could possibly prompt such devotion and obsession?

First, the show serves up a rare kind of perfection and ingenuity. It opened at the same time the whole “Spider-Man” musical debacle was unfolding on Broadway. The mistake “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” made was that it tried to do Hollywood-style visual effects on stage. That cost millions and ran into endless technical problems.

But when Stuart Gordon decided to bring his own film to the stage he took a vastly different approach. He recognized that doing a stage play now is like doing a low-budget horror film in the 1980s because there was no CGI and no budget for optical effects back then. So everything was done like you would in live theater.

“It goes all the way back to ancient Rome,” Gordon said, “In those days, they used to have chicken blood and little bladders that they can explode on stage.”

But there were still challenges.

Jesse Merlin (center) has to use an elaborate costume rig to play a character who gets decapitated and then has to carry his head around in "Re-Animator The Musical."
Thomas Hargis
Jesse Merlin (center) has to use an elaborate costume rig to play a character who gets decapitated and then has to carry his head around in "Re-Animator The Musical."

“The biggest problem is that you have a character that is decapitated at the beginning of act two and spends the rest of the play carrying his head around in his hands and that seemed like a sizable problem,” Gordon said when the play opened. “To get some of those headless gags to work, Jesse Merlin, who plays Dr. Hill, has to literally climb into a box and he has to wear this rig where he has to hunch over to make it look like he's carrying around his own head. He has to be a contortionist.”

“A lot of people can't figure out how we do it,” Merlin said. “I think it creates the illusion very effectively. It doesn't have the hyper-realistic quality of the film. The film is shockingly realistic. This is different because it's musical, because it's operatic, because of the style it has a natural lightness, which kind of plays counterpoint to the grotesque and gruesome doings onstage. But people connect with it. People are happy to see how things are happening, the illusion is still effective particularly after I get decapitated.”

“Well there is magic,” Gordon said. “In a sense we do a lot of switching things. I mean we go from a prosthetic head to a real head without the audience realizing it, which I love. But what's great about these effects is it's not like we are fooling the audience. The audience knows how we are doing everything but I think they enjoy being in on the joke. I also think it's really great to let the audience's imagination be part of it. It's almost like if you did too much then the audience becomes very passive and sort of sit back and go, ‘All right thrill me.’ Whereas here it becomes they're part of the game. It gives them something to do, it puts them to work.”

Cynthia Carle, Brian Gillepsie, and Liesel Hanson as the Miskatonic pep squad in "Re_Animator The Musical."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hRJK56BY3I
Cynthia Carle, Brian Gillepsie, and Liesel Hanson as the Miskatonic pep squad in "Re_Animator The Musical."

Yes! That is another reason to love the show. It makes us willing participants in the illusions it creates. It has a charming as well as wickedly clever do-it-yourself quality that thoroughly engages the audience. It’s like knowing the magician’s trick and still being dazzled. And maybe it’s that DIY quality that inspires creativity on the part of its fans. People in line have come in elaborate costumes and with homemade props, sometimes of amazing quality. I have met people at “Re-Animator The Musical” that I have become fast friends with because of our shared passion.

In the past I ordered body bags and made up my friends as the corpses that are called out for in the morgue scene. I have bought pom-poms in the black and orange colors of the Miskatonic University pep squad that appear in the play, and had cheerleader outfits made for my friends and I to wear. My friend and I carried 200 pom-poms to Scotland to hand out to people along with lyric sheets for the M.U. Fight song. I have also had lab coats made with a Miskatonic University logo designed by Paul Wee, a fellow fan and a Simpson’s animator. And for our Vegas road trip we decided to dress as Elvis so there would be a row of "Elvi" in the front when the actors come down into the audience to examine the corpses in the morgue. And then in response to what we did, Graham Skipper, the actor playing Herbert West, ad-libbed a line about one of the Elvis corpses having died of a heart attack on the toilet. The Vegas audience loved it.

Then, of course, there’s the blood. That is a big reason to love this show. Skipper makes it his personal goal to shoot the blood out as far as he possibly can or to pick one victim, like a young boy in Vegas who screamed with delight as he was showered in a spray of blood.

“The main difference between the theater and film,” Skipper pointed out, “is that when seeing live theater you are breathing the same air as the cast, you are there with them and even if they never break the fourth wall, there's this sort of communion you have with the audience that you share and with this show specifically because we include it so liberally and so specifically with this show, things like blood flying out that the audience can't help but be engaged.”

And that, for all you worried parents, is what the young boy was responding to, the engagement he was experiencing at a theater. The audience does experience a communion with the cast and we all feel like family… joined by a very special blood tie.

“Re-Animator The Musical” (“RTM”) also has an amazing tone. It is funny but never at the expense of the characters. There are outlandish gags – like a human sized version of the cat Rufus that comes back to reanimated life – but we always care about the characters and are actually moved when events turn tragic.

Unlike “The Evil Dead Musical,” “RTM” never ridicules the characters or the source material, but rather is respectful and playful. “The Evil Dead Musical” (although charmingly performed here in San Diego) takes the tone of the movie “Scream,” and is constantly doing the “nudge-nudge, wink-wink look how much smarter we are than what we are making fun of.”

“RTM” has none of that smugness and the actors are playing the characters straight as they are written rather than mocking them, and that is a much more winning approach.

In the latest version of “RTM,” composer and lyricist Mark Nutter said Gordon encouraged him to expand the musical numbers and create more musical interplay.

“I played with counterpoint, two melodies happening at the same time in the new 'Our Wedding' and the new 'He Brought a Cat Back To Life’ [and] 'I Will Be Famous' too. A lot to listen to. The audience doesn't get every word and that's fine. There's a lot to hear. Repeat viewings will reveal more,” Nutter said.

Which is why after four performances in three days my friends and I were still craving more. There are also a lot of different musical styles in the play. So we get one song that could have been in “The Sound of Music” and then a later one that’s got a tango beat.

“As far as multiple styles, that was built into musical from the beginning,” Nutter said. “Not by design. We just let it emerge that way.”

I have to confess to not being a very musical person and when I don’t appreciate something like the film version of “Into the Woods,” I am told I simply don’t understand its musical complexity. Fair enough. But I don’t need to understand the musical complexity of “RTM” to know I love it and can listen endlessly to it. But I wanted to know why so I asked Merlin – who also happens to be a classically trained opera singer -- if he could help articulate why I find it so delightful and rewarding to listen repeatedly to this music.

“I think it's fair to say that Mark’s music is chromatically inventive, in the sense that the chords move in unexpected and clever ways that seamlessly match the pithy, multilayered wordplay and rhyme scheme,” Merlin said, “Mark uses intervals uncommon in modern musicals, such as the tritone or ‘devil's interval.’ Think European siren. There is patter and rapid text requiring dexterity and diction more akin to an operetta than a modern musical. And though his music sounds just fine with modern voices and contemporary singing style, it's also well suited to a classical voice like mine because he writes long, legato vocal lines that have substantial direction and shape.”

Yeah, what he said.

Marlon Grace plays Mace, a security guard at the morgue, in "Re-Animator The Musical."
Thomas Hargis
Marlon Grace plays Mace, a security guard at the morgue, in "Re-Animator The Musical."

It has also been great to see the play continually evolve and change. Some cast members have moved on and are missed. No one can do “How cool” better than Chris McKenna who originated the role of Dan Cain, and Rachel Avery was great as Megan Halsey. But Darren Ritchie and Jessica Howell have slowly made these roles their own bringing a different energy to the play’s young lovers. Changes have given bigger roles to some of the other cast members and that’s been great. Most notably, Marlon Grace’s bit part as a security guard has blossomed plus he has added two corpses to his acting duties and has brought them to vibrant life with a wicked sense of fun. He’s a big, imposing guy and when he leans into the audience and threatens to make someone into a snack, well, it’s impressive and such fun.

The talented Liesel Hanson and Cynthia Carle have gone from just supporting roles to a kind of Greek chorus that comes in throughout the show to add whimsical commentary. And Brian Gillespie has turned Rufus the reanimated cat into a true star. It’s amazing that he can animate a puppet cat with such humor. He also does amazing but unrecognizable work under a lot of make up and costuming as one of the zombie undead and Hill’s double.

Both of these showcase a masterful sense of physical comedy (and he seems to be channeling Flyboy from “Dawn of the Dead” for his zombie walk). It was also nice to see “Cheers’” George Wendt return to the role of Dean Halsey and continue to find both more comedy and more emotion in the role.

And then there are Skipper and Merlin. I cannot imagine the show without them. Skipper has a manic energy that keeps us riveted to the stage and Merlin executes his performance with the precision of a surgeon. Every time I see the show I find a new detail in their performances to admire, or a minor tweak that makes a line or lyric hit home in a new way. They play superbly off each other and make the play deliciously entertaining.

The run in Vegas at The Smith Center continues through Sunday, and there are no announced plans for “Re-Animator The Musical” to open anywhere else. Everyone involved is interested in keeping this brilliant show alive but finding a venue and getting the backing is tough. So, if there is anyone with a million dollars or so laying around who wants to back a production in say, San Diego, please step forward. Then I can enjoy this bloody little masterpiece in my own city and not have to make a road trip to see it.

But I have faith that “Re-Animator The Musical” will continue to reanimate. I can’t imagine life without it. Thanks to Stuart Gordon and company for giving a lot of people a lot of joy. We eagerly await announcement of the next splatter zone location.