Monday, June 23, 2014

32. THE ZOMBIES: A MUSICAL (June 17, 2014)


The zombies begging for handouts on 42nd Street appear to have taken up residence at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (in the Playwrights Horizons building) to appear in their very own show, THE ZOMBIES: A MUSICAL. A character identified in the program as George, the One Armed Zombie (Philip Akogu), actually has a hand out, his gangrenous left one that is, which he wields in his other one, while he and his fellow living corpses perform Tricia Brouk’s cleverly cadaverous choreography (the show's standout element) to music that fails to sink its rotting teeth into your flesh. 
From left: Sam Givens, Christina Pagan, Philip Akogu, Tamrin Goldberg, Tova Katz. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Max Resto, who wrote the score, the lyrics, and book, while also conceiving (what must that have been like?) and directing, might be called a multiple-threat talent but I'm afraid the emphasis falls on threat. For much of this two-act horror show (take that as you will), a campy pastiche of tropes from pop culture's zombie lore (like the films of George Romero), you will fear not so much for the lives of the imperiled characters but for the state of your own patience; the young lady accompanying me ran screaming into the night after act one. The show claims it runs two hours, but it ran at least 10 minutes over that the night I saw it. That's when I started to have sympathy for the undead.
Although the cast performs with enthusiasm and spirit, and several have real ability coursing through their desiccated veins, a fatal pall of amateurishness enshrouds much of THE ZOMBIES, whose tackiness is underlined by a program credits page listing not a single visual designer. Sound designer and co-composer David J. Rios gets a credit, but you have to search the Production Team list at the back of the program to find a lighting designer (Dan Jobbins) and costume designer (Annette Westerby). Neither gets a program bio, although the “projectionist,” Chris J. Noon, does. The show makes extensive use of projections, but no one is specifically credited as their designer, and the Production Team credits only hint at who this might be. Someone designed the scenery, but it’s so unattractive I wouldn’t be surprised if the one-armed zombie was responsible. The scene shifts, which should be instantaneous, are done in ZPT (figure it out). I have one more cavil about the credits, but I’ll get to it later.

Thomas Poarch, Rich Hollman, Alex Daly. Photo: Hunter Canning.

As for the zombies, we have Will, the Butt Naked Zombie (a comically elastic Sam Given), Kim, the Gluttonous Zombie (Tamrin Goldberg), Tina, the Angry Zombie (Tova Katz), and Ellen, the Silly Zombie (Christian Pagán), in addition to our one-armed buddy, George, who is one of the standout players. Makeup artist Michelle Buongiovanni has done a good job of making the zombies look just like all the ones you see on TV and in the movies, but you can see the same effects every Halloween. I’ll give the zombies credit, however, for being brave enough to insert pale blue-green contacts into their eyes to heighten the effect. There’s nothing new either in the lurching, sideways-stepping, shoulders-hunched-forward, arms-dangling walk the zombies affect. On the other hand (not George’s, of course), Ms. Brouk’s choreography, which injects lots of campy life into the decomposing proceedings, transforms the walking dead into the dancing dead, including a funny kickline they should call the Zombettes.
Philip Akogu, Tova Katz, Sam Givens, Russell Kohlmann, Emily Hope Holland. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Quirky Off Broadway musicals like this appear annually, like last year’s THE CHOCOLATE SHOW and BAYSIDE: THE MUSICAL, among others, with tongues stuck against cheeks so hard they’re practically poking through; such seems to be the case here, but the point of view is so muddled it’s hard to see what’s being satirized (yes, racism, gun control, etc., are touched on, but to no significant effect). Zombies are on the loose in Hill Valley, infecting anyone they bite (unless, of course, they eat them first). One subplot concerns Bruce (Thomas Poarch), a middle-aged redneck, and his two sons, Little Pete (Alex Parrish), a 13-year-old nerd, and Pete’s closeted gay, but aggressively macho, older brother, Junior (Alex Daly), who looks like a young Val Kilmer and displays his buff torso in a sleeveless mesh shirt. They and Bruce’s redder-than-redneck friend, Otis (Peter Hollman, who does a decent job), the beer guzzling owner of a gun shop, go off to shoot as many zombies as they can, popping them off like ducks in a shooting gallery. Ultimately, dad and sons learn to love and respect one another, despite their differences.
Another subplot concerns the not-yet infected denizens of a Mexican burger joint run by the devout Pedro (Luis Galli), who thinks the biblical Tribulation is coming. Other locals include an overweight, philosophically inclined, 68-year-old, black woman, Odessa (Tammi Cubilette), who rejects Pedro’s piety (claiming hell would be more fun than heaven); given the only thing like words of wisdom in the play, she injects a modicum of sass into the deathly atmosphere. Then there’s Basil (Russel Kohlmann), a local pothead and judge’s son, in a Rastafarian wool cap, who becomes the unlikely male romantic lead, and who soon has everyone toking on weed. Chloe (Emily Hope Holland) is a Goth waitress who hooks up with Basil. Whoever these stereotypes are, all eventually become zombie meat. Hey, a zombie’s gotta eat, right? Still, with so much cheesiness on display, might I suggest a switch to dairy?

Mr. Resto--director, composer, librettist, lyricist--exemplifies the phrase, jack of all trades, master of none. The blues-inflected “The Zombie Shuffle” isn't bad, although it has a familiar ring, but it's the only one of 15 songs that comes close to having a pulse. The writing is mostly six feet under, as in: “It’s a mess of a day when they want to bite into you and munch on your ass.” The zombies dance well enough, including a number using ribbons for entrails, and sometimes climb over audience seats (most were empty anyway), but their singing and that of the regular characters—apart from the promising Ms. Holland—shows why croaking and dying are synonymous.

During all the scenes in Pedro’s Café, a video projection standing in for the place’s rear wall shows a large cockroach moving from one place to another, even though a line in the script notes how “neat and clean” the joint is (Pedro is incessantly sweeping, if that’s what listlessly moving a broom is called). The roach’s image is on a loop, so it keeps repeating over and over. Before long, you begin to wait for it, neglecting what’s happening in the show proper. My question: shouldn’t there be a program credit for the roach?  

Note: Although the performance is miked, assisted listening devices are available.