Friday, May 18, 2012

Re-Animator the Musical Rips Up the Hayworth Theater

Graham Skipper and Jesse Merlin. Photos by Thomas Hargis

If the mark of a successful musical is getting butts in seats, then the producers of
Re-Animator the Musical should be laughing all the way to the blood bank. As we stood in line for the second incarnation of Stuart Gordon’s musical – the first opened early in 2011 and ran much of last year – a young woman glanced over at us and burst out, “We’re trying to get into the theatre first so we can sit in the very front row of the splash zone!”

It may have been a first-timer’s excitement or it may have been a ‘please don’t say you want to sit there too’ appeal, but in either case we laughed and said not to worry. We’d be sitting halfway back, safely out of the way of exploding intestines, blood-spurting eyeballs and the other oozing projectiles.

“Oh good,” she exclaimed. “We’ve seen it three times and we HAVE to sit in the front row!” Her friends all nodded in agreement. Repeat butts in seats. That's gold. And so begins another run of the campy, horror musical that swept last year’s local theatre awards and breathed new life into the good-doctors-gone-bad story.

When it first came out in 1985, Re-Animator quickly became a hit among horror fans and established a cult following both for the film and its mad scientist, Jeff Combs, who played Herbert West. Graham Skipper (left) plays West in the musical and is just as fiendish as his film counterpart and funnier than ever in the broadly drawn, extremely eccentric role.

West’s discovery of a fluorescent green serum that can re-animate the dead and his ongoing experiments at Miskatonic Medical School create havoc among the students and staff. The amiable Dean Halsey (George Wendt) sees nothing amiss in West’s behavior but the dean’s lovely daughter Meg (Rachel Avery) suspects he is up to no good from the beginning. When West moves into her handsome boyfriend Dan Cain’s (Chris L. McKenna) basement, the secretive experiments continue and victims start to turn up by the score. West’s nemesis, Dr. Carl Hill (Jesse Merlin), has his own sleazy agenda and the rivalry between the two doctors ends up with Hill losing his head – quite literally – and carrying it around for half of the show.

The story follows the film pretty closely and horror fans will love seeing how director Stuart Gordon brilliantly reinvents the action for the stage. There’s plenty of death, sex, horror, comedy, music, and dancing, and those sitting in the splash zone should be revved up and ready for an experience at a whole other level. (Garbage bags are passed out if you don’t bring anything to protect your clothes). Special effects have been done by Tony Doublin, John Naulin and John Beuchler, the same team who created them for the film, along with Greg McDougal and Tom Devlin. Here they are a star attraction and as funny and wrong as they are ingenious.

Rachel Avery with George Wendt and Jesse Merlin

The original cast is back led by
Skipper in his hilarious turn as Herbert West. George Wendt, best known as Norm on Cheers is the show’s headliner, and he goes for it, game on, all the way through. Whether he’s being thrown around the stage by a zombie or beating his head up against an imaginary wall, Wendt gets the laugh, and we love him for it. Cain and Avery provide the sex and a dose of sweetness amid the craziness happening all around them, and Merlin’s pompous Dr. Hill is full of the cocky assurance of a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a really bad toupee.

Re-Animator’s rough edges have been spit-shined and polished without losing any of the wacky guerrilla theater energy you felt pumping in the original. The Second City/SNL treatment of the scenes allows the cast to push the heightened comedy to the outer limits of good taste but it’s all in fun. Only the undead on stage might beg to differ.

Laura Fine Hawkes’ ingenious set design consists of a single doorway that becomes the entrance to all of the locations in the musical. It’s a great use of the space that proves it’s not how big the stage is, but what you do with it that counts. Mark Nutter’s music and lyrics have also continued to morph as the show has developed over the last year. Nutter parodies a variety of styles with many of the songs following a kind of musical stream of consciousness format that features recognizable themes and funny repetitious phrases that emerge unexpectedly. Choreographer Cynthia Carle scores big with her dueling doctor tango and never misses an opportunity to have her zombies break out their Thriller moves.

Re-Animator will move on to the New York Musical Theatre Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival when it finishes its run in Los Angeles. L.A. performances are Thurs., Fri., and 8:00, and Sat. at 7:30 and 10:30 pm through July 8 at the Hayworth Theater, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90057. For tickets call 323-960-4442 or go to

* * * * * * * * * *
Re-Animator the Musical
Book: Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon and William J. Norris
Music & lyrics: Mark Nutter
Adapted from the stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Based on the film H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator produced by Brian Yuzna
Director: Stuart Gordon
Musical direction and arrangements: Peter Adams
Choreography: Cynthia Carle
Keyboards: David O. & Brian Kennedy
Set: Laura Fine Hawkes
Props: Jeff Rack
Costumes: Joe Kucharski
Lighting: Jef Ravitz & Paul Gentry
Sound design: Andy Garfield
Producers: Dean Schramm and Stuart Gordon

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