Zombies carry a tune

10/24/2012 10:00 PM

Phil Morehart
Contributing Writer

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Courtesy Cowardly Scarecrow Theatre Company

Stage plays adapted from feature films are nothing new, but they seem to have hit a zenith in the past decade. Theaters are jammed with shows ripped straight from the cineplex. Broadway producers have translated everything from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and the Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer to John Waters’ Hairspray and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein to the stage. Local theater gets into the act, as well. New Rock Theater on the Northwest Side has been packing houses with riotous versions of Point Break, Predator, and Reservoir Dogs.

Screen to stage translations are tricky affairs. Most are not successful. Some stories can exist only on film. Removing the language of cinema robs them of their power and effect. Alternately, injecting musical and dance numbers into places where they have no business can be equally ruinous. These notions jumped to mind immediately upon hearing about Musical of the Living Dead, a musical adaptation of George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, currently running at The Charnel House in Logan Square.

Romero’s film is a horror classic; a disquieting slice of nihilism and gore that changed the course of horror cinema and laid the groundwork for every zombie film to follow. A musical version would be a disaster.

I was wrong.

Musical of the Living Dead ranks amongst the best shows that I have ever seen. Filled with raunchy humor, catchy tunes, and enough fake blood to stock several Halloween haunted houses, the show turns Night of the Living Dead upside-down to create a completely original experience.

The play uses Romero’s film as its frame, but expands to riff and spoof the entire history of zombie cinema. It begins where Night begins, with naïve Barbra and her crass brother Johnny traveling to a cemetery to place a wreath on a relative’s grave. All notions that the play will follow the original film in tone are shattered during the first musical number — a hilarious, F-bomb-dropping ditty highlighting the animosity between the siblings.

After a zombie kills Johnny during another musical number, Barbra flees to an abandoned farmhouse where the rest of the play commences. From here, Musical of the Living Dead becomes its own being, introducing characters and references not only from Night of the Living Dead, but also from the entire history of zombie cinema.

Steve and Fran from Dawn of the Dead and others join Barbra, Ben and characters from Night as they battle the cannibalistic undead hordes. Zombie fans will have a field day spotting the references. And they will get very bloody in the process.

When zombies and humans are killed in Musical of the Living Dead, both cast and audience feel the affects. Fake blood is squirted, gushed, and sprayed all over the stage and into the seats, covering everything. By show’s end, the tiny Charnel House is washed in red. Audience members are encouraged to dress appropriately or purchase ponchos at the box office.

The play would be nothing without its cast, however.

Musical of the Living Dead features one of the best ensembles that I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch perform. Each player is a master comedian and musical performer. Imagine a highly sexualized cast of the Carol Burnett Show singing barbershop, R&B, and old-timey dancehall numbers while bludgeoning zombies in the head and you have a close approximation. They were perfect. Just like this production.

Highly recommended.

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