For the month of March, Hollywood’s happening place will be the front rows of the Steve Allen Theater, where the cheeky, cheesy “Re-Animator: The Musical” elicits cheers with each spurt of blood and gore making its way over the footlights. Little protection is offered by management’s complimentary trash-bag ponchos, but no one cares, and those out of harm’s way may even get a little jealous. Not since “Little Shop of Horrors” has a screamfest tuner so deftly balanced seriousness and camp.
Librettists Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris and helmer Stuart Gordon penned Gordon’s 1985 cult pic and have not seen to mess with a good, grisly thing. This remains H.P. Lovecraft’s yarn about wacko medical student Herbert West (Graham Skipper, hilariously channeling all-time cinemaniac Jeffrey Combs), driven to inject glowing green liquid to give the dead a second chance. “I give life!” he screamed in ’85, and now sings to Mark Nutter’s engaging, overwrought melody.
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Unfortunately for the staff and faculty at Miskatonic U., whatever life Herbert giveth, the re-animated are just as happy to taketh away.
Gordon marshals a terrific cast through calculated overacting with unflagging zest. An old Chicago theater hand, he exploits the town’s improv vets like George Wendt (“Cheers”) and Mark Beltzman in the rough equivalent of the late Del Close’s Second City standby, “the Harold,” a longform comedy structure marked by intricate subplots, brief scenes in quick counterpoint and — above all — the sheer joy of performance.
Most such extravaganzas throw all their punches within the first five minutes, but this one builds in intensity throughout. Gordon carefully siphons out the outlandish stage trickery provided by the original 1985 f/x team, and always in the story’s service. A decapitation is pulled off with aplomb, but the real giggle is how victim Dr. Hill (the deliciously smarmy Jesse Merlin) manages to sustain his lecherous lust for power while toting around his (singing) head at mid-thorax.
Amid all the groany jokes, threadbare trappings, magic tricks and movie homages, Mark Nutter’s score may be overlooked, and it shouldn’t be. Synthesized with valiant gusto by musical whiz Peter Adams, it alternates mock-heroic anthems worthy of Bernard Herrmann’s trunk with cute ditties in a Gilbert & Sullivan jugular vein, all teeming with tricky rhymes and wit (“His psychosis gives me chills/He cannot love, he only kills”).
Don’t misread this stuff as cheap gags for low brows. “Re-Animator: The Musical” is an entertainment of rich rewards and high accomplishment.