News Column

No gore, just terror in New Line's 'Night of the Living Dead'

October 14, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 14--If the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had had a more theatrical bent, his play "No Exit" might have been a lot like "Night of the Living Dead" -- the disturbing musical that just opened the 2013-14 season at New Line Theatre.

As things stand, it's the other way around. "Night" is a "closed room" thriller that creators Stephen Gregory Smith (book and lyrics) and Matt Conner (music and lyrics) based on George A. Romero's classic horror movie of 1968. It also deals with trapped people who, like Sartre's characters, don't understand their dire circumstances -- but this time, we get music and chills in the bargain.

It's not a gory show at all. In fact, we never even see the "others," the rampaging zombies outside. But it's a nightmare.

Zombies start as regular people. In this world, whom can you trust? The survivors who take shelter in an abandoned house have nothing in common except, they're still human. Can that be enough?

Under the direction of Scott Miller, Zachary Allen Farmer gives a rock-solid performance as Ben, a take-charge American hero, straight out of a Western but forced to deal with something much weirder than cattle rustlers. Farmer's plain, everyman looks serve him well here; so does his compelling deep voice.

As Barbra, already in the house when Ben stumbles in, Marcy Wiegert delivers an eloquent "Johnny & Me," the number that comes closest to explaining what's happened. Still, Barbra's so hysterical and the song so disjointed that we learn as much from her tone as the lyrics.

The house also offers insecure refuge to teenagers in love (Mary Beth Black and Joseph McAnulty) and to a squabbling married couple (Mike Dowdy and Sarah Porter) with a little girl (Phoebe Desilets). They all sing well, but the most haunting number is one the adults sing together at intervals: "Broadcast 1," "Broadcast 2" and "Broadcast 3."

In these songs, the actors and conductor Sue Goldford's instrumental ensemble seem to swallow hard, capturing the inward shudder that accompanied old Conelrad tests. The "Broadcast" songs remind us that the radio could turn into the last friend we ever know.

The show is aptly costumed by Weigert and Porter; they dress Barbra in a pink sheath, the unofficial mourning garb of the 1960s, thanks to Mrs. Kennedy. Scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert nicely details the ordinary Pennsylvania house under siege.

There's only one hole, but it's a doozy. Why does the married couple leave the girl alone in the basement? Originally they thought it was the best spot, but once Ben persuades them that they are safer upstairs, wouldn't they bring her with them?

In fact, it's hard to believe that any parents, facing terrible danger, would let their children out of their sight or their arms. The little blanketed lump of a girl by herself takes the audience out of the moment, the one thing a thriller can't afford.

This is only the second production of "Night of the Living Dead" anyplace. It's not too late for Conner and Smith to think about their audience some more. If the father simply carried her to an upstairs sofa or chair, blanket and all, the audience could give in to "Night" completely -- all its music, all its terror, all its nightmare implications. {&rule}'Night of the Living Dead'

Where --Washington University South Campus Theatre (formerly CBC High School), 6501 Clayton Road

When --Through Nov. 2. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

How much --$15-$20; $10-$15 for students and older adults; discounts for educators, high school students and active military

More info --314-534-1111; newlinetheatre.com

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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