St. Louis is blessed right now with a double helping of zombie musicals, opening simultaneously. Both are about zombies but they're as different as zabaglione and zuppa di mare. We have "Evil Dead" at Stray Dog, which, I'm told, is a blood-spattered wacky zombie spoof that will leave you laughing your brains out on the floor. And at New Line you can see "Night of the Living Dead," which will find quite a different use for your brains. This is no spoof, nor is it merely an homage; if you let it, it will lead you to think.
"Night of the Living Dead" is based on George Romero's iconic low-budget 1968 film of that name. Plot-wise it is almost a scene by scene replica of the movie. A group of strangers is trapped in a remote farm-house while an apocalypse of slaughter rages outside. As in the film, the word "zombie" is never used—but we know that's what they are. A cast of six tells the whole story, though at times—vocally, musically—they sound like many more. There's Barbara, a young woman whose recent escape from the undead has left her in a state of shock; Harry and Helen are middle-class suburbanites with marriage problems whose little girl is near death under a mysterious fever; Tom and Judy are a terrified teen-age couple; and Ben is a quiet, strong, capable man who is determined to lead them to safety. From time to time there are poundings on the door of the barricaded house, but for the most part the zombies are simply "out there," and we focus on the fears and conflicts of those trapped within.
The characters, as written, are the same now-corny stereotypes as in the movie: the panicky girl who is utterly dependent on some brave man; the strong, calm hero; the self-important, argumentative coward; the innocent teen-agers. But the music—and this superbly strong cast—lift the piece into quite a different realm.
The often-beautiful music maintains a pendulum swing between the serene and the terrifying. In the opening number the cast sings of a "perfect morning," sweet and blissful—which turns into a night of horror in which they can only "Shove! Push! Lock!" There are marvelous harmonies, gorgeous dissonances and a complex interplay of voices. And such voices! Without exception the cast are truly fine singers; most are long-time New Line veterans. Marcy Wiegert as Barbara, Sarah Porter as Helen, Joseph McAnulty as Tom, and Mary Beth Black as Judy do beautiful work. And I was especially impressed with the clear high tenor of Mike Dowdy, as Harry, and, as so many times in the past, I found Zachary Farmer quite amazing. Farmer plays Ben, the hero, and he gives the role a profound honesty. He sings with wonderful smooth power, yet never seems even to approach the limit of that power. Moreover, he's able to express a beautiful range of emotions—fear, anguish, anger, care, tenderness—quite subtly and convincingly. Such commitment; such total investment in the role!
With all of these characters their fear is real! (And there are some gold-medal screams.)
By approaching these rather two-dimensional characters with such deep seriousness the cast leads us to consider some thoughts that make this show more than just a zombie thriller: How fragile is peace. How fragile is happiness. Death, despair, catastrophe can come suddenly, with no warning. War, a tornado, an economic crash—they can destroy us in a moment, just like a horde of zombies. It's no use saying "If only we'd stayed at home!" or "If only I'd left two minutes sooner!" We must ask ourselves how we would behave in such a moment.
So it's a good and significant show, but not without faults. The pace flags seriously in the middle, and not all the songs are written to the same high quality. (The teenagers' duet, "We'll Be All Right," is uninspired and so repetitive as to become tedious.) The desperate sally to the gas pump is unconvincing, and I kept asking myself, "What kind of parents would leave a feverish child alone in the cellar for so long?" But the good things in "Night of the Living Dead" far outway its short-comings. It plays at New Line through November second.
And, oh, yes, beautiful young Phoebe Desilets shines in a very special moment as the dying daughter.