Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Re-Animator" Lives Again!

I vividly remember seeing "Re-Animator" for the first time at the drive-in in 1985, lured by print ads promising a then-rarely-heard-of "unrated" version. But when the film began to unspool, and Richard Band's techno version of the "Psycho" theme started to play, I was worried that I had set myself up for a big slice of cheese.

I needn't have been concerned—it was a big slice of cheese, but the delicious, properly aged kind. Filled with rivers of blood and repeatable, campy dialogue delivered by mad scientist Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs in a career-making role) and his nemesis, the Miskatonic University faculty member and plagiarist Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), it was a memorable experience—and certainly fledgling Empire International (later Full Moon) Pictures' best film.

How the hell do you take a cult classic horror movie based on a work by H.P. Lovecraft and transform it into a full-fledged musical in a 99-seat theater with a tiny stage? The original film's director, Stuart Gordon, has done just that—with big messy buckets of ingenuity—and I had the good fortune to catch a performance at the Steve Allen Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard last night.

"Re-Animator: The Musical" recreates the entire film, told mostly in song. Gordon and his original co-scribes, Dennis Paoli and William Norris, provide the book, and composer/lyricist Mark Nutter provides excellent, hilarious songs performed by an able cast. Of course, they had me hooked from the get-go when the overture morphed into Band's techno-"Psycho."

One reviewer astutely referred to the score as "putrescent Sondheim," which is quite astute, and many of the priceless lines that fans know and love have been cleverly incorporated into the songs, which is essential for this kind of endeavor.

The special effects team behind the 1985 film were also involved in this production, and the way they adapted certain effects for the stage are simultaneously clever and endearingly slapdash. As a matter of fact, the blood flows so freely that the first four rows of seats are designated as a "splash zone," and audience members are offered trash bag ponchos to wear if they're feeling delicate.

Graham Skipper compares favorably to Jeffrey Combs in his portrayal of Herbert West, and Jesse Merlin is hilarious as his nemesis, Dr. Carl Hill. When he loses his head in the second act and must continue singing in the most awkward of positions, it's really quite an accomplishment.

Chris L. McKenna, who'd previously worked with Gordon on the film King of the Ants, is Dan Cain, the Miskatonic student who falls under West's influence, and his duets with both Skipper and Rachel Avery, who plays his love interest—and Dean Halsey's daughter—Megan, are a riot.

Speaking of Dean Halsey, George Wendt (who was also in Ants with McKenna) played the original role, but has since moved on. His replacement, Harry S. Murphy, is fine. The zombified dean even performs a riotous duet of sorts with Hill that brings to mind Peter Boyle's "Puttin' on the Ritz" number with Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. And during the climactic assault of the reanimated corpses, Band's techno theme pops up again, causing them to queue up for an undead conga line.

Laura Fine Hawkes' set is a model of ingenuity on a small scale, providing enough atmosphere to give you a sense of place, and the aforementioned gore effects are made all the more endearing by their awkwardness in execution. Gordon handles his material perfectly, as well he should. As the original director and also someone who's been able to watch the film's cult reputation expand over the years, he provides enough tributes to the source material to keep rabid fans happy while also nudging them in the ribs with a joyful kind of "Remember how ridiculous this was?" attitude.

It's this enthusiastic mixture of professionalism and an improv-like feel that makes "Reanimator: the Musical" a real winner. It's been extended to May 29th, and they're adding shows (including Fridays at midnight, which are sure to be wild), so if you're going to be in the Los Angeles area before then, you should definitely check it out.

Another Gordon production, "Nevermore," which I saw in 2009, is returning to the Steve Allen this month. It's a one-man show with Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allen Poe losing his mind on stage during a speaking engagement. It's also definitely a must-see. It's been touring around the country, and there's even a comic book version (by Combs and 30 Days of Night author Steve Niles) set to be published. I can see that working well.

But what about "Re-Animator"? I could see it being preserved on video as a modestly-budgeted HBO-style special, preserving the stage performance. Normally I'd say this is a "you've got to be there" type of show, but the songs in this case really hold up, and it could be fun. That, in turn, could spark interest in a national tour. Or Gordon could package both shows and tour them from city to city. A whole new kind of cult roadshow could be born!

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