Theatre review: 'Night of the Living Dead' musical brings chills to the stage

For the News-DemocratOctober 30, 2013 

A sense of dread permeates New Line Theatre's "Night of the Living Dead" from the very beginning, a chilling and haunting work in both expected and unexpected ways. This is the stuff nightmares are made of -- a serious, not ripe for parody, musical adaptation of a landmark horror film that still resonates today.

I've seen the original movie countless times (a friend's annual Halloween party centered on showing George Romero's 1968 black-and-white cult classic), and yet I jumped and screamed, such is the intensity of this live theatrical production.

What happens is familiar, but the fact that Scott Miller's shrewdly directed piece would pack such a powerful punch is testament to the strong ensemble who plunge us down the rabbit hole with them. Miller never resorts to cheap tricks, and "the us. vs. them" tension builds, almost unbearably at times, as the zombie apocalypse takes place outside the barricaded doors.

The cast's ability to realistically convey confusion and anxiety as the world spirals out of control allows us to put ourselves in that situation, particularly in an uneasy post-9/11 world. Only this is set in the '60s, not the 24/7 news/social media/cellphone present. The only way they can find out what's going on is intermittent radio and TV broadcasts. But back then, the word "zombie' wasn't even used. (In the movie, the ghouls were thought to be infected by radioactive contamination -- but never proven -- and not mentioned in those news reports).

The fear of what kind of epidemic just might be happening spreads as the seven strangers try to figure out how to get to safety. Their urgency as they recite in staccata "Please standby" in the song "We Interrupt This Broadcast" is palpable.

Ben, a principled man who takes refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, becomes the resourceful leader as chaos takes hold. New Line stalwart Zachary Allen Farmer perfectly embodies this ordinary guy who steps up. He tries to console the hysterical Barbra, who is in shock after losing her brother (presumably to the reanimated people feasting on human flesh, taking over rural Pennsylvania). As Barbra, Marcy Wiegart can out-scream scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis.

Mike Dowdy and Sarah Porter convincingly play bickering married couple Harry and Helen, who were on vacation when their car was overturned by the creatures, and their young daughter Karen was bitten by one. Phoebe Desilets, as Karen, spends the majority of her time covered up, sleeping in the cellar. Then watch out.

Harry is an insufferable jerk that you wouldn't want to be stuck with for a few hours, let alone eternity, and Helen tries to make the best of the situation, but these unlikable characters have the show's most powerful duet, "Drive."

Mary Beth Black and Joseph McAnulty are the sweet young couple, high school sweethearts who know the area, and they are heartbreakingly effective.

Their voices are exceptional, and the ensemble's harmonies blend beautifully on a number of bittersweet, melancholy ballads. The music by Matt Conner and lyrics by both Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith, who also wrote the book, concentrate on the characters' ruminating on their normal activities earlier in the day. They capture the hope, despair and ultimate tragedy of the story.

This is only the second time the show has been produced, and its first professional run as well. It kicks off New Line's 23rd season of alternative musical theater, providing plenty of things to talk about on the ride home.

New Line's orchestration, led by Sue Goldford, brings out the emotions, and adding the strings to the piano and percussion was smart, for they really help the mood.

The set design by Rob Lippert of O'Fallon is superbly detailed -- presenting a living room, kitchen, cellar and upstairs that suits the script's functions well. His lighting design punctuates the psychological thriller at all the right moments, deepening the creepy atmosphere. And Kerrie Mondy's sound lends such an eerie feeling.

The musical, for mature audiences, is basically an extended one-act, presented without an intermission. This production is not gory or frantic, more on the somber side, without over-the-top stunts. The restraint of the piece only makes it that much scarier. "In this "Night of the Living Dead" world, the terror is real, not manufactured or phony, for it is not aliens or chemically-altered monsters they are trying to survive -- it is the human race.

What: "Night of the Living Dead"

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Where: Washington University South Campus Theatre (formerly CBC High School), 6501 Clayton Road, just east of Big Bend.

Tickets: $15 for adults and $10 for students/seniors on Thursday; and $20 for adults and $15 for students/seniors on Friday and Saturday. To charge tickets by phone, call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the Metrotix website. Discounts available for high school students, educators and military.

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