nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
August 21, 2009
If you can make a Broadway smash out of singing Nazis or dancing cats, then I see no reason why you couldn't make one about zombies. The Landless Theatre Company has taken up that call in FringeNYC with the rock musical Diamond Dead, an amusing, if uneven, tale of a zombie rock 'n' roll band's journey from the grave to their first breakout MTV-style television concert.
And how did this undead rock band come to pass? In a helpful flashback aided by video projections, we discover that the band's singer, Aria, mischievously messed with an atomic sub-woofer and blew the band to kingdom come. Missing her buddies, she makes a deal with Death to do his dirty work for a year. Before assuming her duties, she hits the "reverse" button on Death's magical sickle and brings the band back to Earth. There's only one problem: they're now cannibalistic zombies. Actually there's another problem: Aria and Dr. Diabolicus, the band's leader, are in love but won't admit it. Actually, there's one more problem: they couldn't consummate their love anyway, though the temptations of necrophilia, as they sing, are pretty strong.
With this set-up in mind, perhaps it sounds silly to bemoan the nonsense that follows. A certain former Alaskan governor (yep, you betcha) vows to stop that evil zombie band from... well, just to stop them, I guess. It's not only unclear why she's out to get them, but it seems a little weird that Sarah "Barracuda" is the arch nemesis to our head-banging, flesh-eating heroes. (Wouldn't Tipper Gore be more appropriate?) Anyway, it's too easy resorting to the primary comedic target of the last year. To delve into the delicious kitsch it strives to achieve, Diamond Dead needs to tell the story of this zombie band's quest to "make it," of the couple's tortured relationship, and of our heroes' success over legitimate opposition, whether by rocking or by eating enemy brains.
The potential for good work is also made clear by the infectiously enthusiastic cast, decked in pleather, blood-stained goth get-ups. Playing the star-crossed lovers, Andrew Lloyd Baughman as Dr. Diabolicus mysteriously broods with consistent deadpan, and Karissa Swanigan provides impressive Ann Wilson-like vocals underneath a wild pile of blond braids and multi-colored ribbons. The rest of the band might be a rabble-rousing crew, but each actor hits an endearing note, especially Josh Speerstra as the slightly nerdy, soft-spoken, gay guitarist. And you can't help but be a little amused when a couple of Diamond Dead groupies, played by Matt Baughman and Ally Jenkins, wander through Dixon Place bopping their head to the beat and encouraging high-fives from the unsuspecting audience.
The songs by Emmy Award-winning composer Richard Hartley induce legitimate toe-tapping, taking inspiration from the shock-rock theatrics of Alice Cooper and KISS, and the band deliver nice harmonies all around. I wish the Dixon Place venue would turn everything down so we could actually understand Brian Cooper's lyrics, as one refrain—"You go to Heaven for the scenery, you go to Hell for the company"—showed promise.
The humor is a bit hit and miss, with some of the gags too cheap for comfort. (The name of the TV host is Pussy A. Dangle, and I'm sure you can come up with most of the jokes all by yourself.) But Andrew Lloyd Baughman, who also wrote the book, manages a few sophisticated gems—when addressed as "Mr." by an overeager fan, Dr. Diabolicus asserts that he didn't get his Ph.D. in child psychology to be called "Mr." With an already solid cast and score, the writers need only master this mix of high-and-low comedy and tune up the story. Then Diamond Dead would truly rock the dead.