Reviewed by Tom Lawler
The Zombie Apocalypse is nothing to fear. In fact, we’re rapidly approaching the era of peak zombie production as our TVs (The Walking Dead), movie theaters (World War Z) and even in-boxes(“Re: Tix still left for this wknd’s zombie wine stroll!!”)are lousy with sightings of the undead with no major harm being done to our quality of life. The big bang of pop culture’s current obsession with the walking dead is usually cited as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, which ironically never included an utterance of the Z word.
Cowardly Scarecrow Theater Company’s Musical of the Living Dead is a punky valentine to this movie and the zombie genre it spawned. This salty, spunky musical stars two of Night of the Living Dead’s main characters – sweet, skittish Barbara (an effortlessly hilarious Brittny Congleton) and her African-American protector (Quinton Guyton, playing it straight as “Ben Blackman”) as they beat back waves of brain eaters while trapped in a remote farmhouse.
After a very offbeat introduction from George A. Romero (a somnambulistic Jacob Clausen) himself, Living Dead sets off on its proper course: Songs and zombies – and often served in combination. When we arrive at the second verse of the evening’s first song, “Going to Cemetery,” and are introduced to the S word, which is followed shortly thereafter by the MF word, it’s understood this will be a musical more in the mode of Parker & Stone than Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Moments later when the first of the night’s many fluids are spewed from the stage toward the poncho-clad fun-seekers in the first rows, another possible influence comes to mind: Billy Birmingham, a legendarily lewd figure in ‘90s Chicago late-night theater history with his now defunct Torso Theater (Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, Shannon Doherty Shoots a Porno).
Gloriously profane and with an attractive, energetic cast utterly committed to the material, co-creators and co-directors Mark Lewallen and Brad Younts have partnered with composer Mary Spray to create an irreverent late-night musical that has earned its place as a new Halloween tradition.
Now back for its fourth season, Living Dead has an impressive operation going at Stage 773. Not only do they have a fully stocked merchandise table ready for your commerce before the show starts (including franchise-quality T-shirts and shrink-wrapped CDs of the soundtrack by the “Chicago Cast”), but Living Dead has a crackin’ three-piece band called Panther Gun playing out the score in the seats above you.
For a show to catch on like this though, it’s really all about the songs. Are they good enough, and do you want to come back and hear them again? Out of a shocking tally of 20 songs, yes, there are quite a few I found myself giggling about the next day (Confession: They slipped a soundtrack CD in my press kit). I’m thinking of demented ditties such as:
- “My Little Box” – To an adorable music-box score, a misty-eyed Barbara reflects back on that critical time in her adolescence when her brother and his asshole friends broke open her “precious box” to the scorn of her mother. This is what happens when concise, cunning songwriting meets transcendent performance (Congleton absolutely slays us with this one). All of this is accomplished in less than 90 seconds – bravo!
- “He Ain’t One” – The excellent backwoods trio of gullible Trudy (a confident, go-for-broke turn from Living Dead’s superb composer herself, Mary Spray), slutty and preggers Judy (Carrie Campana) and sexually-confused Ted (Grant Drager) give us their gritty, witty back stories in a rollicking hoe-down.
- “Drop Dead” – On its own merits, not the strongest of Living Dead’s songs, but as a showcase for the Ethel Mermanian pipes of Caitlin Jackson, this sour duet is without peer.
- “Perfect Weapon” – An a cappella song in the style of a barbershop quartet in which the show’s four male characters make their case for their anti-zombie weapon of choice -- and display some killer harmonies in the process.
- “No More Room in Hell/Brains” – It’s got a slow build, but this song in the style of a classic show tune in the key of Seth MacFarlane ends with a jaunty, mega-catchy chorus (bolstered by some superb choreography by Second City’s Carisa Barreca) that will infect your brain zombie-style.
As you can see, composer Spray and company cover an impressive amount of ground musically. Additionally, there’s a rocker in Act II in the style of Green Day, a hip-hop segment in the finale and a surprisingly tender (and funny) soliloquy in Act I as Ted shares some secrets of the heart with the audience
As coarse as this show can be at times, it’s extremely effective in these quieter, human moments when these fine actors (and singers) can shine. You can’t help but wish there were more of these opportunities to ground these characters in more of a reality and set us up for the big, rude laughs that are often around the corner.
As for the Living Dead book, it seems a little overstuffed with characters which introduces a few issues. Because the creators of Living Dead give each character a backstory song, this causes the overall story to sag as we often detour away from the main zombie attack to hear about a couple’s troubled relationship. Additionally, after Barbara is given such a strong introduction at the beginning of Act I, she’s sidelined for most of the remaining act and it doesn’t feel like her story anymore. You can almost sense the creative team’s exhaustion when the final two characters to arrive in the farmhouse reek of Eau de deus ex machina to quickly tie up loose ends in Act II – he has a helicopter and she is a newscaster with all of the latest zombie news.
With all of these digressions, it makes if ponder the deeper meaning Lewallen-Younts-Spray are looking to impart with Living Dead and mull over the enduring appeal of the zombie genre overall.
Are we drawn to zombies because we have secret fantasies of being able to dismiss all of society’s rules and destroy and kill with no guilt or responsibility?
Or instead… perhaps zombies pick at something buried in us that we fear to be true. In this always-on world of 24-7 email checking and clinging to our jobs in an economy that’s crumbling in plain sight, many of us are living as automatons already as we hurtle together toward an unknown future while incessantly sharing all of our thoughts and life moments via social media, binging on awesome television shows, desperately trying to process all of the feeds of data we consume online every day while reserving mere slivers of time to plan life’s major decisions and maintain fulfilling relationships with actual human beings.
Upon further reflection, I’d like to tell you about a musical that raises provocative questions about the coming Zombie Apocalypse.
The Cowardly Scarecrow Theater Company Presents Musical of the Living Dead
Note: Because Musical of the Living Dead is performed by a “Red” and “Green” cast, actors identified above may not appear in your specific performance.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including one 10-minute intermission.
At Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
Directed by Mark Lewallen and Brad Younts
Book and lyrics by Mark Lewallen and Brad Younts
Music by Mary Spray
Musical arrangements by Matt Mehawich
Choreography by Carisa Berreca
Thursdays at 8pm
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and 11pm
Through Saturday, November 9.
Buy tickets at stage773.com or call 773-327-5252