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The Zombies of Penzance
Book and Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Scott Miller, Music by Arthur Sullivan and John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 28, 2018

Sean Michael, Dominc Dowdy-Windsor
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s Gilbert and Sullivan with Zombies! That’s the easy way to describe New Line’s latest production, opening the company’s new season at the Marcelle Theatre. The Zombies of Penzance is essentially that, but it’s also another example of the excellent casting and top-notch singing that’s come to be expected from New Line. It’s also a whole lot of fun to watch, but especially so if you you like zombie stories, Gilbert and Sullivan, or both.

Now, I have to start this out by saying that zombie stories are not something that generally appeal to me. I know they are immensely popular at present, but they (along with another popular genre, vampire stories) are not “my thing”, for the most part. Still, this is a fun concept, and although I’m not a Gilbert and Sullivan expert either, I am familiar with their music to a certain degree, although (now including this one) the only live versions I’ve seen based on this show’s source, The Pirates of Penzance, have been parodies or comic “re-imaginings”. As a re-imagining, The Zombies of Penzance is an especially clever one. Presented with the “backstory” of having been a long-lost “original” manuscript from Gilbert and Sullivan that predates Pirates, the show ends up being a prime example of what New Line does best. The story essentially takes the Pirates template and changes it around somewhat. Presented on an old-fashioned Victorian proscenium-style stage surmounted by framed photos of Queen Victoria and zombie movie icon George S. Romero, the story follows the idealistic, newly zombified Frederic (Sean Michael) who becomes torn in his loyalties between his fellow zombies led by the enthusiastic Zombie King (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) and his old loyalties to society, along with a new attraction to Mabel (Melissa Felps) the eagerly enthusiastic young daughter of famous and somewhat reclusive zombie killer Major-General Stanley (Zachary Allen Farmer). Stanley, for his part, boasts of his illustrious career in the hilariously re-written “Modern Era Zombie KIller’, and expreses his desire to protect established society and the lives and repuations of Mabel and his other daughters.  (Christina Rios as Edith, Kimi Short as Isabel, and Lindsey Jones as Kate, along with Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak, and Sarah Porter). The zombies continue to be zombies, and as the daughters’ fascination with them grows, so does Frederic’s conflict.

Various issues are dealt with here, especially in terms of challenging religiously defined social norms, essentially in a metaphorical sense that the script itself calls out several times, in a conceit that at times can come across as self-congratulatory. Still, the concept is interesting and the script is hilarious, with lots of witty references to the zombie genre and Romero’s works in particuar, and the lyrical re-writes to the well-known songs are excellently done, sung remarkably well by the New Line cast. Songs like “Poor Walking Dead” “Hail, Zombies!” and more generate a lot of well-earned laughs. The cast is truly wonderful, as well, led by a sincere, gloriously sung performance by Michael as the conflicted Frederic. Dowdy-Windsor displays strong stage presence and an equally strong voice as the Zombie King, also, and Felps displays impressive vocal ability and an energetic characterization as Mabel. There’s also a memorable, delightfully hammy performance by Farmer as Major-General Stanley, and much energy, enthusiasm, and excellent singing from the entire ensemble of Daughters and Zombies.

In terms of production values, this show is a stunner, with that inventively detailed period-styled set designed by Rob Lippert. Much credit goes as well to the team of set contructors, artists and painters including Richard Brown, Paul Troyke, Patrick Donnigan, Melanie Kozak, Kate Wilkerson, Nick Brunstein, Judy Brunstein, Grace Brunstein, Kathleen Dwyer, Tamar Crump, Karla Suazo, and Gary Karasek.  The whimsical, detailed costumes by Sarah Porter also add to the overall mood and atmosphere. There’s also excellent lighting work from Kenneth Zinkl and sound by Ryan Day, and a first-rate New Line Band led by musical director Nicolas Valdez.

It’s a a seriously fun show, no matter what you may think of Zombie stories, but if you love them, I think you’ll especially love The Zombies of Penzance. In terms of humor and sheer musicality, it’s remarkable. Ultimately, though, this show is a witty, hilarious show that has a lot of fun with its concept and features first-rate, enthusiastic cast. It’s not “traditional” Gilbert and Sullivan, but that’s really the point. It’s another excellent, thought-provoking show from New Line.

Zachary Alan Farmer (Center) and Daughters
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting The Zombies of Penzance at the Marcelle Theatre until October 20, 2018.

 

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Yeast Nation
Lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis
Music by Mark Hollmann, Book by Greg Kotis
Orchestrations by John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 2, 2018

Cast of Yeast Nation
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is closing out its latest season with a quirky show that’s right up their alley in terms of style and approach, although at its heart it’s both new and old at the same time. Yeast Nation is a fun, funny show with a theme that’s novel and a message that’s more timeless. At New Line, it’s given a production that emphasizes the comedy, musicality, and most of all, the heart of the story.

This show, set up as something of a Greek tragedy with a chorus and archetypal characters and situations, has kind of a goofy-sounding premise, and the directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have embraced the overall silliness of the theme by going all-out in terms of visuals, vocals, and performance. Basically, it’s about yeasts–more specifically, a colony of yeasts that live on the earth billions of years ago. Still, although these characters are yeasts, the situations presented here are very human. The power struggles between young and old, progress and conformity, individual goals vs. those of the group, are all familiar, told in a framework that gives the story an air of mythology. Most of the yeasts here are named Jan, with adjectives highlighting their personality or position in the group. Jan-the-Unnamed (Sarah Gene Dowling) essentially narrates the story, leading a chorus of yeasts throughout the production, telling a tale of change, resistance to change, and, of course, love, as the colony’s longtime leader, Jan-the-Elder (Zachary Allen Farmer), advised by his counselor Jan-the-Wise (Micheal Lowe)  strives to keep order and “stasis” in the community, as resources are scarce and strict rules are maintained in order to preserve the colony’s supply of the salts that they need to eat to survive. When one yeast breaks the rules and is bascially executed (“popped”), his daughter Jan-the-Sweet (Larissa White) is left to grieve and question the strictness and purpose of the rules. Also challenging the status quo is the Elder’s first son, Jan-the-Second-Oldest (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), who is also sweet on Sweet and wants to help her, as well as the rest of the colony, by breaking the rules and “rising” to the top of the ocean in search of other sources of food. Meanwhile, Second’s sister Jan-the-Sly (Grace Langford) thirsts for power and teams up with Wise (who is also enamored with Sweet) in order to enforce the old rules of stasis and gain control of the colony in place of her ailing father. There’s a lot of intrigue, plotting, and aspiring, and its all presented in a heightened style that ultimately feeds the overall broad comic tone of the show, communicating a message that isn’t really new, even though it’s told in a clever, compelling way.

The musical elements, as is usual for New Line, are top-notch. There’s a great band led by music director Sarah Nelson, playing the show’s generally upbeat score with style. The singing is great, with everyone in excellent voice and Dowling and the chorus having some standout moments, especially on the show’s catchiest number “Love Equals Pain” in Act 2. White and Dowdy-Windsor also have some strong vocal moments, and they display a believable, sweet chemistry in their scenes together, and Farmer as usual has a strong presence and impressive vocals. Langford and Lowe bring a lot of gleeful energy to their villainous roles, and there are also memorable performances from Jennelle Gilreath as the conflicted, determined Jan-the-Famished, Colin Dowd as Jan-the-Youngest, and Lex Ronan as an enigmatic (and initially cute) new addition known as the New One. The whole ensemble works together well, bringing a great deal of energy to this seriously funny saga.

Visually, Yeast Nation makes a strong impression as well, with a set and lighting by Rob Lippert, costumes by Sarah Porter, and an overall style that’s reminiscent of an undersea-set Saturday morning cartoon. In fact, the overall theming and sense of style here, from the direction to the technical elements to the sheer energy of the cast, is a key element of this production’s success. This is a show that I hadn’t seen or heard before–which is another strength of New Line in that they give exposure to some more obscure musicals, and that’s a very good thing. Overall, I think this production is a lot of fun, and another example of the strength and ingenuity of New Line Theatre.

Larissa White, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Yeast Nation at the Marcelle Theatre until June 23, 2018.

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