Stage Review: Re-Animator - The Musical

Re-Animator the Musical poster

There are at least two great things about Re-Animator: The Musical, currently at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood. The first is that the song-and-splatter stage adaptation of the 1985 film H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator actually works as musical theatre. Other movies adapted into live shows - for instance, The Lion King - have managed the transition, but only through a series of gimmicks and contrivances; the results were essentially a stunt that left audiences amazed not by any aesthetic qualities but by the simple fact that the producers managed to squeeze the cinematic story into the confines of the proscenium arch. Though Re-Animator: The Musical certainly has its share of "How will they stage that?" moments, one leaves the theatre thinking not, "Wow, they did a headless Dr. Hill - live!" but rather, "Wow, that was a great musical!"

Which brings us to the second great thing: though Re-Animator: The Musical tells essentially the same story as the film (based on Lovecraft's tale of a medical student reanimating the dead), the transition from cinema to stage yields a new creation - familiar in form, yet completely different in tone. The addition of songs, performed live before our eyes, utterly transforms the action, blunting the horror and replacing it with campy humor; the result is less a revolting shock-fest than an over-the-top extravaganza, in which every emotional beat and character nuance is underlined with an aria, and every plot point is punctuated with punctured organ. If that sounds absurd, it is. Fortunately, Re-Animator: The Musical embraces the absurdity, with brilliant results.

If we were to select the perfect synecdoche for Re-Animator: The Musical - one that clearly distinguishes the play from the film - it would be the infamous Rufus episode, in which Meg (Jessica Howell) and Dan (Darren Ritchie) come home to find their pet cat dead in the refrigerator of Dan's new roommate, Herbert West (Graham Skipper). First, the play states more clearly that West (despite his initial protestation of innocence) killed Rufus to use in his experiments - a question the film leaves open to debate.

Alas, poor Rufus... (Note: This photo is from a previous production, with Rachel Avery and Chris McKenna as Meg and Dan.)
Alas, poor Rufus... (Note: This photo is from a previous production, with Rachel Avery and Chris McKenna as Meg and Dan.)

More significantly, the ghastly horror of a beloved pet's death - and its later resurrection as a ferocious, feline monster - is mitigated when Rufus is represented not by an actual cat but by a stuffed animal. The effect becomes deliberately ridiculous when, a moment later, the resurrected Rufus begins bopping his head in time with a triumphant song about the success of West's reagent serum. Viewers repulsed by the film sequence will find themselves tapping their toes and smiling happily at the stage version - and possibly asking a question that never occurred to us during the film: What happens to Rufus after this? (Perhaps he should star in a sequel spin-off - a sort of gruesome children's show, a la Stumpy's Gang?)

Re-Animator: The Musical features several additions that improve upon the source, including a transitional scene in which Dan and West, having been expelled from school, decide to sneak into the morgue to test West's reagent on a human body, hoping that success will overturn their expulsion. Deleted from the film,* this scene not only fills a continuity gap; it also subtly illustrates the gradual deterioration of Meg and Dan's relationship. The action begins with the couple discussing Dan's predicament; then West interrupts, entering from behind and literally coming between them - just as he is figuratively coming between them, his work taking over Dan's life and dragging him away from Meg.

There is also a wonderful closing number from West, which seems modeled less on anything in H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator than on Udo Kier's closing soliloquy from Flesh for Frankenstein (a.k.a., Andy Warhol's Frankenstein). Wrapped in entrails, on the verge of death, West muses upon his legacy: Has his work been worth it? What impact will it have on the world? How will he be remembered?  If this sounds a trifle maudlin, understand that, while engaged in this poetic pondering, West holds an intestine like a garden hose, directing its bloody spray onto the audience.

The beheaded Dr. Hll controls the zombified Dean Halsey.
The beheaded Dr. Hll controls the zombified Dean Halsey.

Because of scenes like this, the theatre's first row is a designated "Splash Zone"; audience members who want to sit up front are advised to wear raincoats. The splatter effects and makeup by Tony Doublin, John Naulin, and John Beuchler do a remarkable job of recreating the film's graphic imagery. Most impressive is the figure of the beheaded Dr. Hill (Jesse Merlin), which initially appears to be static, fooling the audience into thinking it's an immobile dummy with the actor's head sticking through - and then he starts walking! Also brilliantly staged is the moment when the prop head in West's hands is replaced - in the blink of an eye - by the Merlin's real head - a transition timed so perfectly that it generated applause on the night we attended.

These virtuoso moments are all part of the staging by Stuart Gordon (who previously directed the film). Gordon makes the most of the limited space at the Steve Allen Theatre (which is more of a small performance space than a theatre). The single set, a large door, serves for all the entrances and exits in the story's various locations, but the cast continuously moves in, out, and around as if there is actually somewhere to go.

Consistently funny and catchy, the profusion songs by Mark Nutter are sung by a talented cast, backed by a solo keyboardist whose synthesizer mimics a small ensemble. All of the vocal and acting performances are strong, but Skipper and Merlin stand out as the antagonistic Herbert West and Dr. Hill, making the roles their own and erasing any distracting memories of the film's Jeffrey Combs and David Gale.

The Dead Dean Halsey (Ken Campbell) watches while Dr. Hill (Jesse Merlin) abuses Meg Halsey (Jessica Howell).
Dean Halsey (Ken Campbell) watches while Dr. Hill (Jesse Merlin) abuses Meg Halsey (Jessica Howell).

More than a mere bloody exploitation effort, the film version of H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator has earned a deserved place among the the classics of the horror genre, thanks to its unrestrained - and unrated - gore, which was so excessive that the shock effects sometimes bordered on the tongue-in-cheek. Fans of the film will be pleased by the play, but Re-Animator: The Musical stands on its own terms - more joyous and hysterically funny than horrific, tongue no longer in check but torn from mouth and hurled enthusiastically into the audience. Watching the tidal wave of carnage flood over the front rows, you will scream - but with laughter.

Re-Animator: The Musical runs at the Stevel Allen Theatre until November 23 (before moving to Las Vegas in January). Performances are at 8pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Tickets are $25. Call 1-800-595-4849 for reservations. The address is 4773 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90027. Click here for the website.

FOOTNOTE:

  • This missing scene appears as a bonus feature among the Re-Animator DVD extras.