I've never reviewed a musical before – or a stage show of any kind – but I suppose it's fitting that I start with the over-the-top and funny RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL, which is currently playing at the New York Musical Theater Festival. (7 performances only here before moving to Edinburgh in August.) Basically as faithful to the film as you could possibly hope for, while still boasting cross-over appeal, it crams the entire demented story of Dr. Herbert West without pause into one long breathless, blood-soaked, zany good time.
The story will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film, or even to people with a vague awareness of it. (Why it truly works, though, is that you don't necessarily have to know anything about it to have a good time.) Demented student Herbert West moves into the room of nice guy Dan Cain, who is currently romancing the daughter of the college's dean. West brings with him a very special knowledge of the dead... and life after death. He also brings a cavalier, even criminal attitude towards doing what ever it takes to accomplish his goals. If that means sacrificing a friendly cat, or a competitive enemy, so be it.
Directed by the film's helmer, Stuart Gordon, and using a book written by Gordon, Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris, with lyrics by Mark Nutter (and what a nutter he is), RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL is about as goofy and family-friendly as it gets when you're talking about a story dealing with mangled bodies being revived. Limbs being ripped from their sockets and heads being chopped off with a blunt shovel. With a lightness of tone and a general sense of good-naturedness, Gordon and his team have shockingly transformed the disgusting tale into a toe-tappingly genial piece of entertainment. Yes, you can bring the kids to this one, even if there is a re-enactment of the film's most infamous moment involving a horny severed head. That particular sequence gets close to the perversity of the movie, but the upbeat tenor of the entire arrangement keeps it from being too creepy.
Make no mistake, however: This is an incredibly bloody affair. There's a reason the first two rows are referred to as the “splash zone” and the audience members are given ponchos to wear. At most opportunities, the performers will spray blood upon the giggling patrons, often quite intentionally. (In West's final number, which sees him wrapped up in a hilariously elongated intestine, actor Graham Skipper blatantly points the squirty-end of the entrail at the first row.) There's also the iconic sight of Dr. Hill, West's nemesis and eventual victim, holding his still-chatty skull as his headless body mopes around that will certainly provoke some ewwww reactions from the audience, although the effect is so impressive (it involves the actor sitting in an office chair and sort of rolling himself around while poking his head through a fake torso) that all will quickly forgive its weirdness. And, again, the effect is ultimately to provoke chuckles, not gags.
The entire cast is perfect, obviously having a blast while never breaking character. (It's also the original cast from the award-winning L.A. production.) the most notable name is George Wendt (“Cheers”), who plays the dead of the school who is turned into a mindless zombie, brings joviality to both incarnations of his character. Skipper plays West with a devilish glee that absolutely brings to mind Jeffrey Combs' memorable performance. Chris L. McKenna portrays Cain as a somewhat dorky romantic who gradually looses his sanity when approached with the oddities the story presents him with, while Rachel Avery is just right as the sweet Meg; she's also probably got the best voice of the bunch as well, although admittedly you don't need to be Pavarotti to belt out some of these loony ditties.