When you purchase a ticket for Night of the Living Dead (the musical), you might think you’re in for a gore fest or a rollicking night of campy fun a la Rocky Horror or Evil Dead the Musical. Singing, dancing zombies, you say? Bring it on.
Kensington Arts Theatre’s world premiere of Stephen Gregory Smith’s Night of the Living Dead (the musical) is anything but a romp of sensationalized violence. Fans of the 1968 Romero film will recognize the plot: seven strangers, pursued by a swarming mob of zombies, barricade themselves inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Smith’s musical focuses on the madness inside the farmhouse, rather than the mayhem outside.
Night of the Living Dead (the musical) is thematically strong and thought provoking. Smith drew inspiration for the piece from media paranoia surrounding the attacks of 9/11, threats of Anthrax, and the Beltway Sniper attacks in 2002. Smith and co-director Jenna Ballard never let you forget this inspiration. The show opens with the seven waif-like strangers wandering the stage to the sound of white noise and radio static. The effect is creepy, and stirs up all kinds of anxiety in the imagination. The action revolves around an old television placed center stage. As each hour passes, the characters become obsessed with monitoring the sporadic news broadcasts, but the broadcasts do more to enflame their paranoia than alleviate it. The piece does not feed you answers. It asks you questions. Who makes the rules when the world descends into chaos? How far will you go to survive? Who are the Living Dead? Are they the attackers outside or the people inside?
RaMond Thomas plays the protagonist Ben with great ferocity. The most powerful moment of the show comes near the end, when Ben sings alone in near-darkness to a music box left behind by one of the victims. Thomas’ voice is both powerful and vulnerable. Also notable are Leslie Vincent and Stephen Hock, who play the young couple Judy and Tom. Vincent’s voice is charming and relatable, and Hock plays Tom with a quiet confidence that stands out against the hysterical bickering among the other characters. Like a horror film, music underscores much of the action, but the actors fill moments of silence and stillness with tension thick enough to chew.
The show loses momentum in the musical numbers. The orchestration by Matt Conner is standard musical theatre fare, more suited to a Jason Robert Brown-style production than one based on a horror film. It’s like watching two different productions— one a frantic, expressionistic play, the other a sentimental, naturalistic musical. If the mash-up of styles is an attempt to symbolize the collision between the humans and the undead, it is not adeptly handled. The orchestration and lyrics exist in a middle ground that is neither minimalistic nor highly theatrical. Songs rarely accomplish more than one objective, which feels like a missed opportunity, considering the complexity of the thematic material.
The production would benefit from a more judicious technical design. The lighting design by Kevin Boyce suffered from the same confusion of style as the music. Some scenes were dimly lit and shadowy, like an old horror movie, but the flashing lights and fire effects in other scenes bordered on gratuitous. The costume design was lackluster, and did not evoke any particular time period. There is some merit to lending a show about paranoia a timeless quality (what’s more timeless than fear, after all), but that choice lost credibility when the characters started singing about Communists and the KGB.
Will you want to sleep with your lights on and your television off? Absolutely.
Stephen Gregory Smith deserves credit for looking the horror genre straight in the eye and subverting it. He and the actors give a familiar story about zombies a new heart. What the production lacked in consistency of style, it made up for in substance. Will you leave the theatre tapping your toes and rushing home to buy the soundtrack? Probably not. Will you want to sleep with your lights on and your television off? Absolutely.
Advisory: Night of the Living Dead (the musical) contains mild language and horror elements appropriate for a PG-13 audience.
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
Night of the Living Dead (the musical) plays through November 17, 2012 at the Kensington Arts Theatre in the Kensington Town Center / Armory – 3710 Mitchell Street Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office 206-888-6642, or purchase them online.