By Anthony R. Miller, music by Brendan West
Directed by Courtney Hardin and Jillian Spencer
Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Alley Theater’s cheeky alternate festival of new “undead” theater, deliberately scheduled to coincide with the higher profile festival a few blocks away at Actors Theatre, has come a cropper with Zombie! A New Musical. Originally developed in San Francisco, the smart, witty script builds upon a solid dramatic structure to present an engaging romantic comedy punctuated with a well-constructed rock score.
The low rent nature of the production is apt, although I do wish a live band could have been employed to give the heavy metal-ish songs a full-blooded rendering. They deserve it. But the pre-recorded backing, organized by Music Director Cristina Mullins, is fairly good; it would just be better if the music had more power. The quality of the singing varied, with a few fine, strong voices capable of belting it out, but a few that struggled a bit. Yet all the cast brought a good delivery to the songs.
The story follows two runaway teenagers, Trent and Violet, whose love for each other is tested when she becomes a zombie. Her transformation is gradual, so that we, for the first time that I can think of, are treated to a fully developed zombie character struggling with issues of love, morality and the ethics of surviving a zombie apocalypse. (I told you it was a smart script.) Hallie Dizdarevic brings unexpected depth and pathos to her heavy metal mistress with a wild black and red proto-punk haircut, while Tony Smith is an energetic presence and one of the better voices as her lover.
Trent’s crazy Uncle, a U.S. Army general deeply involved in the origin of the zombie plague, is played by Joey Arena with a relish for the overripe language and penchant for absurd metaphors he is given the privilege to deliver. He also does double duty as a certain iconic heavy metal legend that makes a surprise appearance later in the show. I won’t give away the surprise, but Mr. Arena brings a light touch to his impersonation that just makes it that much more delicious in its effect.
Among the rest, two standouts were Cristina Mullins, one of the more forceful singers, as a mercenary television reporter, and Alan Canon, an Alley Theater fixture, plays Violet’s neo-hippie father by hilariously channeling Robert Young (Father Knows Best).
Valerie Hopkins provides some raucous choreography, but it seems to be restricted to the opening and closing numbers featuring the entire cast, while there were several instances in the duets where actors appeared to be waiting for the musical cue to begin singing. Some well-chosen movement would have eliminated these deadly pauses and helped maintain the energy and momentum.
But the vagaries of staging could not disguise the quality of the script and lyrics. While the clichés of zombie storytelling are very present, I love that the focus was on developing the relationship between the lovers and their “special problem” as much as on the growing zombie threat. The story finds room to place satirical attention on the phenomenon of reality TV celebrity, flirting, however fleetingly, with the not-so-far-fetched idea that zombies could be absorbed into the voracious media culture without skipping a beat.
And the music is very good; well-structured and consisting of clever, thoughtful lyrics enveloped in tuneful, light-metal tunes. “The Hunt,” a song shared by Joey Arena, Cristina Mullins, Tony Smith and Hallie Dizdarevic, jostles multiple lead vocals and succinct narrative exposition with aplomb that would not be out of place in a big-budget musical working its way to New York. Who knows? Maybe this is one of those opportunities to catch a show early in its development, before it becomes the next big thing. If the Humana Festival can do it, why not the Inhuman: A Festival and Zombie! A New Musical?
ZOMBIE: A New Musical!
Starring: Joey Arena, John Aurelius, Kristy Calman, Alan Canon, Hallie Dizdarevic, Riker Hill, Lily Jones, Cristina Mullins, Tony Smith, Rich Williams
Part of: Inhuman: A Festival of the New American Undead Theater
Running March 1-24, 2012 at The Alley Theater. Check here for the exact schedule:
1205 East Washington Street