Brent Barrett and Jenn Harris in Silence! the Musical
(© Carol Rosegg)
Brent Barrett and Jenn Harris in Silence! the Musical
(© Carol Rosegg)
The kind of dirty-minded schoolboy irreverence associated with the parodies found in Mad magazine permeates Silence! the Musical, now running at Theatre 80 St. Marks. While the show contains its share of lulls and comedic clunkers, it's also frequently jaw-droppingly funny.

Book writer Hunter Bell, songwriters Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan, and director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli leave no moment in -- or performance from -- Jonathan Demme's modern thriller Silence of the Lambs unscathed in this tuner, which first debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Indeed, the production's low-budget comedic approach to the source material is apparent as soon as the curtain rises to reveal four rolling panels that have been outfitted with crazy quilts of black cloth, a clever, smile-inducing visual reference to the patchwork of human skins that one of the show's villains, Buffalo Bill (the consistently daring Stephen Bienske), is making out of his female victims. And once the company, dressed all in black except for the floppy lambs' ears on their heads and the white tube socks with plastic hooves that cover their hands (costumes from David Kaley) have assembled to sing the show's opening number -- a terrific variation on Howard Shore's main theme for the film -- there's laughter aplenty.

It's no mean feat that the creators can continue inducing giggles (and guffaws) from this dark tale about fledgling FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jenn Harris), who works diligently, with the assistance of convicted and incarcerated serial killer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Brent Barrett), to track down Buffalo Bill.

The show's success comes from the ways in which even the smallest details from the film are magnified, such as the initially funny (but sadly overplayed) moment when a man with no hands (one of Jeff Hiller's many characters) attempts to help Clarice break into a storage locker owned by Lecter. The inspiration for the gag lasts only a few frames in the movie.

At other moments, Gattelli uses grade school play-like theatrics to achieve a laugh. When Clarice dreams of her father, an ensemble member darts out onto the stage, clapping two blackboard erasers together to create "fog," and to indicate a helicopter on stage, an ensemble member rotates in the background with arms stretched out like a rotor.

His choreography is equally amusing, particularly the tongue-in-cheek ballet sequences for the Dream Clarice (Ashlee Dupree) and Dream Lecter (Callan Bergmann). Unfortunately, Gattelli is unable to focus the show as it moves into a comedic frenzy during its second half, when it becomes increasingly incumbent on the principals and ensemble to wrest humor out of weaker material.

To their credit, the company complies with the show's demands. Particularly notable is Harris' fiercely physical turn as Clarice (played in the film by Jodie Foster). She consistently uncovers new variations on her turn that amplifies Foster's Southern-accented lisp and oxymoronic tough girl naiveté, which Harris pushes to hysterical heights.

Equally impressive, the clarion-voiced Barrett glides over the Kaplans' pop-rock arias that have some pretty scatological lyrics with ease and imbues Lecter with just the right elegant suave creepiness. Harry Bouvy plays the self-serving doctor running the asylum where Lecter is incarcerated with superlative oiliness, and Lucia Spina, playing both Bill's most recent victim and her mother, manages to find the silliness in shrill fear and grief.