Some celebrate Halloween by trick-or-treating. Others celebrate by getting black-out drunk. My Primary Movie-Going Companion and I decided to celebrate last night by seeing a live musical version of a gory horror film from the 80’s. That’s right folks, it’s Re-Animator: The Musical.
If you haven’t seen Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, you really should. It was one of the many movies I watched during Oct-horror-ber, and it’s probably one of the best from that month. It’s streaming on Netflix right now, so do yourself a favor and go watch the adventures of Doctors-in-training Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) as they test out West’s new formula, designed to give life back to the dead.
The musical follows the film’s plot quite faithfully. There are few divergences, thanks in part to the fact that Gordon co-wrote the book with William J. Norris and Denni Paoli, with music and lyrics by Mark Nutter. West (played on-stage by Graham Skipper) still comes to Miskatonic University after a tragedy in Switzerland; he still moves in with Dan (Darren Ritchie on-stage), much to the chagrin of Dan’s girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton on-screen/Jessica Howell on-stage); he still runs afoul of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale on-screen/Jesse Merlin on-stage); and he still brings the dead back to life.
I won’t go too much into detail on the story, as it takes some fun turns. Obviously the main departure from the film is the presence of songs. A lot of songs. I would go so far as to say there are no songs in Gordon’s movie. Not so here. They’re everywhere! The songs are all pretty fun and peppy, well-written, though the music is repetitive, moreso than in most musicals. The songs also give the show a more overtly comic tone. The film is hardly serious, but the whole endeavor feels goofier with songs added to the mix. It is reminiscent of Evil Dead: The Musical in a lot of ways. Both stage shows are adaptations of horror-comedies, but Evil Dead: The Musical laughs at the idea of musical theater, undermining itself. Re-Animator: The Musical may be a comedy, but it respects the form.
It may seem ridiculous to say such a thing about a show with a splash zone in the audience, but the cast uses it to great effect, often in very funny ways. I’ll put it this way, fake blood was not the only liquid that ended up on those brave souls in the front few rows.
I was content enough to watch from a safe distance. The Steve Allen Theater is not very big, so every seat gives a good view of the stage, and the performances made up for what couldn’t be seen. Skipper brings a ton of charisma to his role as West. It is a different vibe from Combs’s portrayal (again, “goofier”) but it works in the theater setting. The other huge highlight was Merlin’s quietly creepy villainous Dr. Hill. Merlin does so much with his face and eyes – work that would be lost on a balcony, but is perfect in close quarters.
Everything in the show is really well-rehearsed, from the cast to the one-man keyboard band to the effects. The physical effects in the show are almost a perfect aesthetic match for those in the movie – which is to say cheap and ridiculous. But again it fits the tone perfectly.
Re-Animator: The Musical has been extended through most of November. If you’ve seen the movie (or you know what? Even if you haven’t) I recommend the show. The entire production – from ensemble to crew – is impeccable enough to make up for the lulls in the book, making for a tight show that evokes inventive shows like Little Shop of Horrors. It is a fun time at the theatre, and there isn’t enough of that these days.