Jesse Merlin and George Wendt
in Re-Animator The Musical
(© Thomas Hargis)
Jesse Merlin and George Wendt
in Re-Animator The Musical
(© Thomas Hargis)
Summertime in New York City brings with it a plethora of theater festivals. And there's one more this year, as the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), which in the past played in September and October, has moved to the height of the summer, running July 9-29 in various Midtown venues.

Among the more highly anticipated offerings is Re-Animator: The Musical, based on the 1985 cult classic film. The stage version is directed and co-adapted by Stuart Gordon -- the same man who helmed and co-wrote the screenplay for the film. "For years, people kept suggesting that it would make a great musical, but I thought it was an absurd idea and would just laugh," says Gordon.

However, he was convinced of the viability of the project after discovering what he describes as "the strangely off-kilter work of Mark Nutter." Not only has the composer written songs for the show, he's set nearly the entire production to music. Gordon quips, "It should be called Re-Animator the Operetta, but no one would show up."

Another of the musical's assets is the casting of George Wendt -- perhaps still best known for his work as Norm on Cheers -- who plays several roles in the production. "George is an old friend from my days as a theater director in Chicago," says Gordon. "And he actually produced one of Mark Nutter's earlier musicals, so when I told him we were developing a musical version of Re-Animator he was all about it."

One cautionary note for audiences: there is a tremendous amount of stage blood involved, and even a "splash zone" at the front of the house. "Cleaning up the blood has scared off a couple of venues," admits Gordon. "But the blood formula is completely stain-proof and washable and yes, we do have a plan for quickly cleaning up the theater after each performance. As a former Boy Scout, I always try to leave my campsites as I found them."

Another director at NYMF, Jeremy Dobrish, expounds on the requirements of being part of the festival as he preps for Baby Case, which is based on the kidnapping of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby in the early part of the 20th Century and the murder trial and media circus that ensued.

"Part of the director's job is to figure out how to tell this story with very limited resources and time," he notes. "You have to store your set in a closet, and break it down and set it up for every performance; you have a rep plot of lights; you only have a few hours of tech time." And yet, he sees all this as an opportunity more than a limitation. "It forces you to find what is essential in the storytelling," he says.

As for the subject matter, Dobrish sees the incident as a precursor to more recent high-profile trials. "I think people have an insatiable need to get into the private lives of celebrities, and revel in their misfortune," he states.

In addition, Michael Ogborn, who wrote the show's score and book, has chosen an unusual structure for the musical. "One of the things that's fascinating about the show is that there is no protagonist," says Dobrish. "Every few minutes Michael gives us a new angle on the story, a new plot twist, a new character. It's a fantastically inventive way to tell such a complicated story."

Next page: Flambe Dreams and Picture Incomplete


Jarrod Spector and Jillian Louis in rehearsal
for Flame Dreams
(© Lena Adasheva)
Jarrod Spector and Jillian Louis in rehearsal
for Flame Dreams
(© Lena Adasheva)
Jarrod Spector, best known for portraying Frankie Valli in Broadway's Jersey Boys, is a first-time participant in the festival, having been recruited by director West Hyler to star in Flambe Dreams, Matthew Hardy and Randy Klein's musical, which involves an aspiring maitre d' whose father was tragically killed in a freak flaming Bananas Foster accident.

"I have great respect for West, so of course when he approached me about being in his show I was open to it," says Spector. "Then he told me the title and gave me a quick synopsis and I thought… well maybe I should read it first."

Spector soon became enchanted by the story. "The juxtaposition of seemingly earnest music with silly lyrics -- or vice versa -- make it very funny," says Spector. "You laugh at the absurdity, and then before you know it you actually find yourself wrapped up in the humanity of the characters."

Trent Armand Kendall, another Broadway veteran, is bringing an autobiographically inspired musical, Picture Incomplete to NYMF, featuring music and lyrics by Michael Polese, whom Kendall describes as "my partner, my lifemate and best friend."

In regards to the show's title, Kendall explains, "I thought by the age of 40 that 'success' and experience would supply me with a sense of greater understanding, yet I felt my list of unanswered questions about life getting longer. Michael and I decided it's not a bad thing to admit that we don't have it all figured out. That means you're still in the fight, so I'm a 'Picture Incomplete'."

Next page: Requiem for a Lost Girl and Swing State


Elizabeth Tarhan and Onalea Gilbertson
in Requiem for a Lost Girl
(© Paul Chirka)
Elizabeth Tarhan and Onalea Gilbertson
in Requiem for a Lost Girl
(© Paul Chirka)
Canadian artist Onalea Gilbertson was commissioned to write her musical, Requiem for a Lost Girl, through the Land's End Chamber Ensemble. Her initial task was to craft a piece "focusing on an event that happened in my home province of Alberta when our Premier famously stumbled into a homeless shelter after curfew and yelled at the men sleeping in the stairwell to 'get a job' and threw some spare change at them."

However, the project soon expanded as she started musical workshops with people experiencing homelessness. "Just by being present and being a part of the culture I learned so much," says Gilbertson. Eventually, she recruited several people she worked with into a choir, with two of the initial participants of her singing group traveling to New York with her to be part of the NYMF presentation.

Gilbertson, herself a featured vocalist in the production, is also partnering with New York-based organizations serving the homeless such as Covenant House and Project Renewal, and including a talkback after every show. "Homelessness is an international emergency," she states. "As a community, we must open our eyes to this situation and recognize that we are all just human beings in this together."

Another musical that seeks to address social and political issues is Swing State, featuring book and lyrics by Dana Yeaton and music by Andy Mitton. Set in Ohio, the two-handed tuner pits a conservative kindergarten teacher against a gay male chiropractor.

"I'm a straight guy with a gay son, but homophobia was a visceral thing for me long before anyone started writing 'Fag' on his locker at school," says Yeaton. "I love a good wedge issue, but this one doesn't really have two sides. No one thinks, 'But wait, the bully has a good point here' -- except the bullies in this case try to make that argument. It's infuriating and I hate those people. I want to bully them back...which I'm pretty sure makes me part of the problem."

Swing State became Yeaton's attempt to address that, and figure out how "two cultural warriors try to overcome their allergic reactions to each other." He also sees the New York Musical Theatre Festival as the perfect opportunity to get this message heard.

"NYMF is kind of the Sundance Film Festival of musical theater," he says. "You want your show here because you want it seen in a make-or-break context. We think we've got something unusual -- a two character musical that's also a comic think-piece."

Click here for more information and NYMF tickets.