The Steve Allen Theater in Los Feliz has been home to some pretty incredible events. Trepany House may have outdone themselves this time by bringing Re-animator to life once again. The show has been touring the country to rave reviews, and has returned to LA with a number of the same cast members. The musical, directed by Stuart Gordon, with music by Mark Nutter (which kind of sounds like a fake name), is based on Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic film, H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-animator, which in turn is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West–Reanimator.”
Before the opening scene, pom-poms are distributed, and the front rows are warned they are in the “splash zone” and offered rain coats. In reality, the splash zone is the first few rows and about 5 rows down the center, as the blood definitely flies, spurts, and gushes. The splash zone, rather than being bothered, laughs hysterically every time they are doused. Later I am to meet some of them and discover they are a large group all wearing bloodied lab coats and safety goggles, referring to themselves as the “med students.” Even later I discover their picture on Twitter identified as The Simpsons’ animators. Simpsons’ fans may recall that one of the “Treehouse of Horror” credits is for “Re-animator Raynis.” Could you ask for a better endorsement?
The story takes place at Miskatonic University’s med school. There is even a Miskatonic U fight song (which explains the pom-poms that the knowing audience shake left and right in perfectly choreographed unison). Herbert West (Graham Skipper) shows up in the classroom of Dr. Carl Hill (Jesse Merlin) fresh from a Swiss school where he had been taught by Dr. Hill’s rival. He soon moves in with fellow med student, Dan Cain, an all-American boy played earnestly by Darren Ritchie. Cain is dating Megan Halsey (Jessica Howell), the singular voice of reason and symbol of good in the story. Megan also happens to be the daughter of the Dean of the Medical School, Dr. Alan Halsey (Ken Hudson Campbell). Cain gets drawn into the experiments as West, determined to conquer death, turns their basement into a laboratory, and hijinks ensue.
The level of acting in Los Angeles’ local theaters is always impressive, and this show is no exception. Jesse Merlin and Graham Skipper are reprising their roles, and it is uncanny how much they resemble the actors in the film. Graham Skipper creates an evil scientist who is cold, obsessed, and at times downright giddy. Much of the comedy in this musical results from the juxtaposition of the grotesque with absurdly joyous singing and dancing. Herbert West and Dr. Carl Hill seem to be in some kind of creep-off, which Carl Hill ultimately wins hands-down. Much of the comedy of Hill’s character stems from his disturbing crush on Megan, expressed in tender love songs. The creepiness borders on horrifying when the doctor’s disembodied head lovingly serenades her.
Megan Hill must play the straight man to all of the wacky characters surrounding her. She is that one person on stage that sets a tone of normalcy for the audience to relate to. This she does with aplomb, whether swooning over her beau or tied to a gurney screaming in terror. Ken Hudson Campbell has the herculean task of replacing George Wendt as Dean Halsey. The character actor does a bang-up job, and really shines as a lobotomized zombie.
The ensemble cast, many of whom have been performing the musical for two years, are completely at home in their characters. Cynthia Carle and Liesel Hanson play it for laughs without once cracking their serious exteriors. Marlon Grace, who is one hell of a quick-change artist, plays more parts than you can count. But he is particularly memorable as the inept yet ambitious morgue guard.
A special shout-out must go to Brian Gillespie, the cat puppeteer, who is able to smoothly segue the audience from skin-crawling disgust to laughter with the most horrifying muppet ever conceived. There is an additional character in this musical — the special effects. The same special effects artists from the film, Tony Doublin, John Naulin and John Beuchler, worked on the musical with Tom Devlin and Craig McDougal. When it is impossible to recreate the film literally, they go for comedic effect.
Most of the music is comprised of sing-songy dialogue, not big on vocal showcases. But Re-animator isn’t going for operatic complexity so much as getting to the point. One favorite number involves Cain’s colleagues trying to convince him to stop trying to resuscitate a lost patient with a shockingly blunt chorus of “She’s dead, Dan. She’s dead, Dan. Why don’t you get it through your head, Dan?” Sometimes the music is humorously referential, as with “Re-animat-or” sung to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” and Herbert West’s triumphant version of “My Way.”
In the spirit of the film, it’s campy and over the top with lots of gore and one good scare. Both musicals and horror require a certain suspension of disbelief from the audience, and Gordon makes the most of this. Even in the cramped confines of the Steve Allen stage, he pulls us into his weird universe with just the power of suggestion. The show runs through November 2nd. Get your tickets now and look for us in the front row, goggles on and pom-poms at the ready.
Now Running in LA Through Sunday, November 23, 2014