Who knew that being scared could be so much fun?
With a title like Scary Musical: The Musical, audiences pretty much know what to expect when buying their tickets. There are potentials and pitfalls in this prescience. The subject matter is certainly ripe for skewering, but as a string of Scary Movie sequels have demonstrated on the big screen, making fun of something bad does not necessarily result in something good. Seeing familiar tropes recycled with tongue in cheek will probably generate a minimum baseline of laughter, but once that expectation has been met, it needs to be exceeded with some inventiveness and originality, or at least enough artistry to reinvigorate the cliches. Fortunately, Scary Musical: The Musical - now playing at the NoHo Arts Center - easily exceeds its baseline expectations: not only does it spoof the horror genre for a few easy laughs; it offers an evening's worth of comedic characters, rousing songs, and engaging performances.
The basic strategy is simple but effective: take the cliches of the musical ("let's put on a show!") and ram them headlong into the horror cliches ("everybody dies!"). The story sees the the drama department of "Vera Miles High School" (located in Hidden Secrets, U.S.A.) preparing to stage a musical, but the star, a blonde bombshell (Laurel Carlson as "Drew Cambell"), is murdered after receiving threatening phone calls (a la Scream and its off-shoot Scary Movie). Coincidentally, a dead-ringer for the murdered actress shows up (Jane Papageorge as "Jamie Lee Leigh"), while the local news reports the escape of a dangerous patient from a nearby mental hospital. Will the show go on? And who will play the lead: the new girl in town, or one of the aspiring classmates who yearned for the part and perhaps killed to get it?
The book by Richard Hochberg is strewn with references to the horror genre - some obvious, some obscure. Horror movie geeks will probably catch the name of the off-stage "Mrs. Voorhees" (Jason's mother in the original Friday the 13th), and Hitchcock scholars will note that one of the characters is named "MacGuffin."* But only die-hard Euro-Trash fans will realize that one of the songs, "A Blade in the Dark," borrows its title from 1983 Italian horror film.
Not to worry: most of the jokes will be clear even to the relatively uninitiated, including a quartet of high school students named Jason, Freddy, Norman, and Carrie. What is impressive, however, is that Scary Musical: The Musical is not content with simply regurgitating the cliche; instead, the familiar characters are transformed into something new. Norman Hates (rather than Bates) still wears dresses and has mother issues; however, as personified by actor August Emerson, Norman has been re-imagined as an emo-teen, and the fit is perfect, yielding a poignant character, not just a walking in-joke. Likewise, Carrie Beige (rather than White) also has mother issues, but instead of the telekinetic wallflower from Stephen King's novel, actress Leigh Golden plays a wily seductress, with her eye not on the handsome hunk but on the blond cheerleader (who is too clueless to see what is so obvious to the audience).
Scary Musical: The Musical is far more musical than scary, keeping most of its violence subdued or off-stage and emphasizing the songs, which are virtually non-stop (seventeen in all). The small cast of nine characters features six major singing parts , which are deftly handled by the actors. All of the major leads belt out show-stopping numbers, each with a vocal range and dramatic flair that seems incredible on a small stage in North Hollywood. (Why aren't these people on Broadway?)
There is a pleasant variety of musical styles, and the lyrics generate hysterical laughter through the relatively simple device of stating their meaning outright instead of couching it in euphemism and poetry. To cite one example, when a sexually aroused Jason Craven (Keir Kirkegaard) sings the insistent chorus of "Baby, Let Me Come Inside" to his would-be girlfriend Jamie, the double entendre is so blatant that it barely qualifies as innuendo. Other standout numbers include the show opener, "Killer in the House" and "Pain is Good," in which Norman's friends urge the cross-dresser to face his fears about taking over the female lead in the high school musical (a surprising moment of empathy in a show which one expects to depict its characters as nothing more than moving targets for the unseen killer).
In fact, the songs (by Hochberg and Michael Paternostro) often outshine the spoken dialogue, which sometimes falls a bit short in its effort to amuse. By its very nature, Scary Musical: The Muscial is broad in its comic approach, but sometimes it goes for the big laugh when a line is worth only a chuckle. The murder-mystery plot is also a bit thin, its true purpose to link the songs together while the audience guesses who the killer is.
Did we say "guess"? Correction: the audience does not guess; the audience determines the killer's identity. In a clever gimmick worthy of William Castle, viewers are given a third-act opportunity to tweet their votes for the killer just before the climactic revelation is made on stage. This kind of narrative strategy can be dangerous, yielding an ending that feels arbitrary rather than organic, yet the ending of Scary Musical: The Musical (at least in the performance we attended) feels like the satisfying culmination of the story. (We need to investigate further to determine whether the NoHo Theatre is simply pretending to tally our votes, like William Castle, who let viewers vote up or down for the ending of Mr. Sardonicus - even though only one ending had been filmed).
Typically, the NoHo Arts Center brings an amazing professionalism to their staging of Scary Musical: The Musical. In our ten years reviewing events around Los Angeles, Hollywood Gothique had attended a handful of productions at this venue, and we have always been impressed by their ability to make their productions seem big within the confines of a relatively modest theatre. Every inch of available space on the two-story set is put to use; lighting and sound effects cues mix with choreography that feels perfectly timed to the engaging music (which is performed live by a band tucked discretely back stage). You watch what goes on in this theatre, and realize it is every bit as entertaining as the most lavish production you would see at the Pantages in Hollywood.
Scary Musical: The Musical continues at the NoHo Arts Center through November 9 (update: extended to) November 23, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. The address is 11136 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood, CA 91601. Tickets are $35. Click here for more information at the official website.
Scary Musical: The Musical. Presented by Lexikat Artists & MB Artists in association with The NoHo Arts Center Ensemble. Book by Richard Hochberg. Music & Lyrics by Richard Hochberg & Michael Paternostro. Directed and Choreographed by James J. Mellon. Cast: Laurel Carlson (Drew Cambell); Keir Kirkegaard (Jason Craven); Leigh Golden (Carrie Beige); August Emerson (Norman Hates); Frank Authello Andrus, Jr. (Freddy Loussier); Matthew Tyler (Mr. MacGuffin); Candi Milo (Leeza Courtney Fox); Jennifer Bennett (Teena Louise); Jane Papageorge (Jamie Lee Leigh). Musicians: Brian Boyce (drums); Jen Trani (guitar); Jeff Novack (bass); Brent Crayon (keyboards and musical direction).
- In a Hitchcock thriller, a MacGuffin is a plot device whose exact nature is unimportant; it's only purpose is to motivate the characters.
More in this series:
- Scary Musical: The Musical premiere
- Celebrate Scary Musical: The Musical with a Scary-tini
- Stage Review: Scary Musical - The Musical
- Scary Musical extended to November 23