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Night of the Living Dead

Music by Matt Conner, Book by Stephen Gregory Smith

Lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner

Directed by Scott Miller

New Line Theatre
October 11, 2013

Cast of Night of the Living Dead Photo by JIll Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cast of Night of the Living Dead
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Lock the doors, board up the windows and make sure you know where everyone is (and who’s on your side).  There are some fearsome creatures out there, and you don’t want them to get you, but it turns out that the threats from inside might be just as insidious as those outside.  That’s the premise for Night of the Living Dead, the musical adaptation of George Romero’s famous 1968 film, presented by New Line Theatre with all the boldness and energy that New Line is known for. In the hands of New Line’s excellent cast and creative team, it’s a thoroughly compelling and riveting production.

I have to admit that I’m a wimp when it comes to horror films, and I had never seen the film of Night of the Living Dead before attending this production, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  I guess I was expecting a stage full of shambling undead creatures along with blood, guts, gore and lots of sheer terror.  Well, the “sheer terror” part is right (in places), and the story does involve zombies, but pretty much everything else I had assumed was wrong.  What I saw was an old-fashioned suspense thriller that just just happens to revolve around a zombie invasion.

In the ominous opening number, “Perfect”, the various cast members recount the day, which started out very promising and then descended into the apocalyptic despair and desperation that begins the action, as Ben (Zachary Allen Farmer) arrives at the house to find Barbra (Marcy Wiegert) in a semi-catatonic state and unable to adequately communicate how she got there or much else.  In the midst of trying to board up the house, they also encounter the paranoid, bullish Harry ((Mike Dowdy) and his exasperated wife Helen (Sarah Porter), as well as naive young sweethearts Tom (Joseph McAnulty) and Judy (Mary Beth Black).  Together, these very different people must learn to work toward a common goal–protecting against “those things” out there (the show never uses the word “zombie”) and trying to find a way to escape. The events progress in a slow, deliberate way as the personalities clash, theories and ideas are discussed, and the secrets of the house and its former owner are revealed, as occasional news broadcasts (ingeniously presented in a chant-like song and its reprises) reveal the escalating situation in the outside world.  The actual zombies are shown very rarely, but when they do show up, it’s positively chilling.

I did check out the film online after seeing this production, and I was surprised in how well this film was adapted for the stage instead of just trying to replicate the film.  The stage version is much more in the vein of a psychological thriller, well crafted by writers Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner so that the music adds to the building tension and reveals the characters’ stories.  There is no dancing and no showy production numbers—everything serves the story, from the foreboding of the opening number, to Barbra’s haunting “Music Box” song, to the various character establishing songs such as “Drive” for Harry and Helen” and “This House, This Place” for Judy, and then ratcheting up the tension as the Broadcasts continue and the characters’ desperation builds.  Barbra’s explosive “Johnny and Me”, where she finally tells her whole story, is an emotional breakdown in musical form, and “The Cellar” (reprise) from Helen is at once terrifying and powerfully sad.  There are several truly terrifying moments that had me glued to my seat in fear, as well as moments of comic relief, brief hope and profound despair.

The performances are excellent across the board, anchored by Farmer, who displays excellent stage presence and a strong voice as the determined, resourceful Ben. Wiegert was also outstanding as the traumatized and fragile Barbra.  Dowdy makes a convincing antagonist as Harry, and his moments with Porter as Helen are charged with belligerent energy. McAnulty and Black also work well together as Judy and Tom, and Black has probably the best singing voice in the show, shown to powerful effect in her solo song “This House, This Place”. The whole cast works together as a seamless unit, making all the relationships and conflicts believable and frighteningly intense.

The production design, from the highly detailed set designed by Rob Lippert, to the period-appropriate costumes by Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert, to the outstanding lighting (also designed by Lippert), sets the mood, time and place extremely well. The late 1960s atmosphere was meticulously accurate, with great little touches like the portable television and period-specific radio, and also in the women’s hairstyles.  It truly felt like 1968, or how I would imagine it to be, and that also added to the overall tone of an old-fashioned cinematic thriller.

This isn’t the type of show I usually rush to see. I had been so impressed with the last show I saw at New Line, Next to Normal, that I was willing to give this show a chance despite my squeamishness about horror films, and I’m glad that I did. Yes, I was terrified, but that’s the point of a show like this, and wow, was it done right! I was literally shaking in my seat, and the sense of terror was palpable in the audience.  This is an old-fashioned suspense thriller in the very best sense.  Kudos to New Line for scaring me out of my wits and showing me that a horror show well done can be an evening well spent.

Zachary Allen Farmer and Marcy Wiegert Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Zachary Allen Farmer and Marcy Wiegert
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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