Re-Animator The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
July 18, 2012
If you talk to any horror enthusiast about the greatest movie scenes involving a severed head (something I do all the time), chances are pretty close to one hundred percent they'll mention Stuart Gordon's 1985 cult classic H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator. I don't want to spoil anything for the unfamiliar, so suffice to say, it's totally insane and awesome and if you discovered the movie while you were an adolescent with a four-head VCR, chances are your pause button got quite a workout.
Perhaps I've said to much.
I'm happy to report that this infamous scene is, against all odds (and good taste), brought to delightful life in the New York Musical Theatre Festival's tune-filled adaptation, Re-Animator: The Musical. And the macabre ministrations don't just end with the severing of heads, oh no; you'll also get your fair share of the re-killing of dead cats, dismembering of burn victims, exploding of eyeballs, bonesaws through torsos, and many other deliciously depraved acts that, for some reason, didn't make it into Next to Normal.
Before I get any further, let me say that as a musical there are several aspects of the production to be found wanting. But, I mean, come on, let's be honest: if you're interested in Re-Animator: The Musical, you're looking for a very specific theatrical itch to get scratched. So, let's get the gore out of the way first.
For the most part, the special effects are quite satisfying. The first three rows do, indeed, get wet. Although, it's not always blood splashing out into the audience—occasionally the production functions more like one of those cheap 3-D films from the '80s wherein no moment to toss something at the audience goes untaken (looking at you, Friday the 13th, Part III). A lot of the effects are somewhat, for lack of a better term, cheap and easy, but it lends the whole affair a gleeful guignol aesthetic that's made all the more charming by its exposed zippers. Frank Zappa dubbed this kind of artistry "cheepnis," and it's something horror fans know and love quite well.
As spectacle this show about crazed med student Herbert West and his disastrous experiments in re-animating dead bodies is, literally, bloody fun. As theatre, though, Re-Animator: The Musical is ultimately let down by its titular punchline: namely, the music.
One major factor is that the music is not well served by its limited instrumentation, considering the uniformity of its pop-oriented score (most of the melodies tend to be rather pedestrian pop recitative played on electric piano, which start to sound the same after awhile, a tango or two notwithstanding). Perhaps a more realized production with some added percussion and guitar would help bring more dynamism and differentiation to the songs.
But the lyrics also fall flat. Not only was I quite frequently getting the sense that, though the character wanted to respond right away, the actor had to wait for a turnaround in the music, but there's also very little joie de vivre in the lyrical content. Not to say they're inept lyrics, just superficial and often predictable, with rhymes you see coming the moment they're set up. A few numbers break through, but for the most part, it comes across a bit uninspired, which is a shame considering the crazed obsessions at the center of the story.
The dialogue-based scenes fare much better (except for the disappointing embrace of one character that can only be described as a played-out racial stereotype with no attempt at transcending its conventions). But director Gordon (yes, the same man who helmed the film) also makes a curious choice to have most of the show's numerous scenes end with fade-outs, chopping up his momentum rather than utilizing more theatrical tricks to give things a smoother build towards the climax. And there's a cheesy campiness to the production that, for my taste at least, bleeds some of the scenes of any real tension and, frankly, leads us to some moments of hoary humor (e.g., the obligatory Thriller choreography when a group of zombies burst onto the scene).
The cast is uniformly fine. Graham Skipper is both endearingly goofy and creepy as Herbert West, and his well-toned voice is perhaps the best suited to the material. Jesse Merlin as Doctor Hill is another standout, whose rich baritone and stentorian silliness is at once an echo of the film actor David Gale, yet also its own adeptly crafted performance. And George Wendt brings an easygoing believability to his role of Dean Halsey, which works well in the face of the less easygoing and unbelievable places his character ends up going.
Ultimately, I left the theatre disappointed that I hadn't seen something more substantive. Still, I'd be lying if I said that I didn't still find myself grinning like a fool during several scenes, as well as laughing out loud at a couple of the more clever gags. So, much like most of the characters' body parts, I find myself torn: at once delighting in the gory homage to a beloved film but also still hungry for something more alive to grab onto.