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2012 NYMF Roundup #2

Reports on Re-Animator the Musical, How Deep Is the Ocean?, The Baby Case, and Stuck.

[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the ninth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.]


Jesse Merlin and George Wendt
in Re-Animator The Musical
(© Thomas Hargis)
Following an award-winning run in Los Angeles, Re-Animator The Musical, playing at the PTC Space, has arrived in New York -- gross-out special effects, splatter zone and all. And while this tongue-in-cheek tuner doesn't break any new ground, it inspires more than its share of chuckles and delighted squeals of mock horror.

Based on H.P. Lovecraft's short stories and the cult film it inspired, Re-Animator, with book by Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon and William J. Norris, transports audiences to a fictional college where a new student, Herbert West (the richly voiced Graham Skipper), discovers a formula for bringing the dead back to life. Ultimately his serum -- ludicrously misused by both its inventor and those around him -- results in hordes of zombies stalking the campus.

It's dopey fun that's accompanied by a score from Mark Nutter that manages to be a campy delight in its own right. He has fused the declamatory vocabularies of opera and operetta with contemporary musical theater sounds, outfitting the diverse tunes with some genuinely surprising funny lyrics.

Director Stuart Gordon's staging serves the nonsensical material up with zealous flair, and he has elicited a host of memorable performances from the company, particularly from Skipper -- who seems to channel Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Morse, and Alan Rickman -- and Jesse Merlin, who brings blisteringly funny creepy lecherousness to his turn as a faculty member with a penchant for plagiarizing other scientists' work.

Television favorite George Wendt appears to be savoring the chance to just act goofy as the college dean who's appalled by West's experiments, while Chris L. McKenna and Rachel Avery, as the young couple whose world and relationship is rocked by the mayhem, deliver decidedly droll turns.

Ultimately, though, it won't be the performances, songs or even story that audiences will remember, but rather the superb work of Tony Doublin, John Naulin, John Buechler, Tom Devlin and Greg McDougall, who created the simultaneously cheesy and handsomely crafted special effects for this zany tuner.

-- Andy Propst

Next Page: How Deep is the Ocean?
Michelle Federer and Eric Leviton
in How Deep Is the Ocean?
(© Vicki Stivala)

The title of the new musical How Deep is the Ocean?, at Theatre at St. Clement's, suggests romantic passion, but this comic piffle is more about the glory of chlorine than the glory of love. Simply put, the show is pleasant but mostly bland, its energy supplied for the most part by its engaging lead players and a cute (planned) surprise appearance on stage by a celebrity in the audience.

In the show, the ocean water lapping up against the shore of a New Jersey beach town is polluted, threatening to destroy the local economy. An obsessed-with-chlorine pool cleaner named Rob (winningly played by Eric Leviton) stumbles upon a formula that might effectively chlorinate the ocean, saving not just the local town but the entire Jersey shore.

A lifetime loser, set to finally win, he has a Judas in his midst. Hence the predictable plot turns that follow. Not so ironically, the best songs in the show belong to the villain (drolly played and magnificently sung by Aaron Ramey) -- who actually has a genuine motivation for what he's doing: he loves Rob's wife, Jackie (Michelle Federer, who plays her part with warmth and good humor), and if he can destroy Rob and steal his formula, this will be his one chance to finally win Jackie back after 30 years of loving her from afar. His song, "If She Were Mine," is a genuine pop standout.

The uneven score by Peter Cincotti must drive a silly book by Pia Cincotti that is co-directed, nonetheless, with goofy charm by Jeremy Dobrish and Gina Rattan. But this show is less a frolic in the musical theater ocean and more like a little splash in a developmental wading pool.

-- Scott Siegel

Next Page: Baby Case
Will Reynolds (center) and company
in Baby Case
(© Billy Bustamante)
Evoking memories of such musical classics as Chicago and Parade, Michael Ogborn's Baby Case, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, revisits what in the 1930s was dubbed the "crime of the century": the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby. And while Ogborn has taken his cues from some great pieces for his often promising show, directed by Jeremy Dobrish and choreographed by Warren Adams, the end product is ultimately less than satisfying.

This is not the case during the musical's decidedly exhilarating outset, where it seems to indict the public for the frenzy surrounding the case as the company delivers the opening number, "American Hero," a paean to the achievements of Lindbergh (Will Reynolds), the famed American aviator, and his subsequent marriage to socialite Anne Morrow (Anika Larsen), with discomfiting intensity.

But disappointment soon settles in as the piece evolves into a historical pageant of sorts, telling audiences about the key moments in the crime, its subsequent investigation, and ultimately the trial of Bruno Hauptmann (Reynolds, in a bit of confusing doublecasting) the man accused of taking the Lindbergh baby.

Alongside the narration, and in the manner of Chicago, the musical digresses into tangential musical vignettes, such as a number for the man who photographed the Lindbergh child's body at the mortuary and a gauche routine, with some of Ogborn's most forcedly playful lyrics, for two hookers that William Randolph Hearst sends to the man defending Hauptmann.

Reynolds demonstrates a marvelous delicacy with an anthem that Lindbergh sings as he tests a new aircraft, carrying his child's ashes with him; Patricia Noonan, playing the baby nurse who discovers that the infant is missing, brings power to the woman's lament about the kidnapping; and Melissa van der Schyff, as a maid implicated in the crime, tears into a lament about her lot in life with power and piquancy despite the impenetrably opaque metaphorical lyrics for the number.

Such moments, though flawed, indicate the promise that Ogborn and the musical have, and it is difficult to not hope that he will revisit and hone this ambitiously conceived historical tuner.

-- Andy Propst

Next Page: Stuck
A scene from Stuck
(Courtesy of the company)
A sextet of New Yorkers find themselves confronting a host of personal issues as they're trapped mid-tunnel on a stalled subway train in Stuck, playing at the 45th Street Theatre. It's a tried-and-true Lifeboat-like scenario that Riley Thomas (who penned the book, music and lyrics) attempts to jump-start by addressing a host of hot-button topics in very un-PC ways. And while his work as a bookwriter is uneven, he proves himself to be a remarkably versatile composer.

Given the diversity of characters that Riley's assembled -- from Lloyd (the commanding Mel Johnson, Jr.), a Shakespeare-quoting homeless man on the train who also serves as the show's narrator to the God-fearing educator Sue (movingly played by Beth McVey), who's harboring a deeply held grief -- it's little wonder the show is packed with numbers that brim with everything form R&B and Latin rhythms to liturgical cadences. Further, Riley impressively synthesizes these varied styles into a traditional musical theater vernacular.

Unfortunately, the script -- which raises issues of racial bigotry, abortion, and suicide, among others, as well as dark secrets for a majority of the characters -- more often than not sounds like a well-meaning soap opera. And as hidden pregnancies are revealed and characters spew (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not) their prejudices, the show, rather than being the uplifting exploration of the similarities that unite us all that Riley intends, becomes all New Yorkers' worst nightmare subway scenario.

Michael Berry directs the piece with solid economy and elicits some fiercely committed -- if not always convincing -- performances from his ensemble. Particularly notable are EJ Zimmerman, who brings ironic passion to her turn as a Korean-American with little patience for immigrants newly arrived in the U.S., and Anita Welch, who gives a sensitively rendered performance as an African-American woman going through a rough patch in the world above the stopped train.

-- Andy Propst


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