Who needs heart when you have blood? It's tough to argue with that logic when it comes to Re-Animator the Musical, which is playing through Sunday at the PTC Performance Space as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. After all, it's based on the cult 1985 Lovecraft-inspired horror film, so gruesome fun would seem to be more the order of the day than deep feelings. And, oh yes, pools of blood and shambling parades of zombies. You have to have those. This show has you covered there, too.
But for all the over-the-top gore (in the sloppiest highlight, a main character turns a blood-spewing hose on one first-row audience member, whose production-provided poncho is barely sufficient protection), there's still something significant missing: laughs. If an outing like this forsakes honesty in favor of humor, and sending tingles down your spine in favor of ramping up shadowy camp, it had sure as heck better be hilarious. Re-Animator is not.
This can probably be attributed to the members of its creative team who are, if anything, overqualified for this particular assignment. The show is directed by Stuart Gordon and features a book by Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and William J. Norris—all of whom fulfilled nearly identical roles on the movie. This means you're guaranteed a faithful reproduction of the movie experience, with a new score by Mark Nutter, but not something that's a natural fit for the stage.
Musicals play by a different set of rules, even when their only goal is parody: The shape of scenes — how and why they relate to the music, and how the music informs them — is of paramount importance. For everything to truly, satisfyingly click, there must be a point of view, a determination to tell the story through songs that accomplish, whether dramatically or comedically, what dialogue alone cannot. What Gordon, Nutter, and company have done instead is transform enormous chunks of dialogue into recitative, thus making the entire evening into something akin to a Les Misérables–style pop operetta.
But numbers about resuscitation serums and flesh decay rather than romance and revolution isn't enough to make the conceit funny, especially when Nutter's music is base and repetitive, and projects not even minimal sweep. There are plenty of opportunities, too: Hot-and-heavy romance between college students Dan (Chris L. McKenna) and Megan (Rachel Avery); the diabolical post-death experiments of Herbert West (Graham Skipper), who moves into Dan's basement; and West's exasperation and rivalry with leading brain researcher Dr. Hill (Jess Merlin), who insists that 12 minutes is the longest amount of time anyone can stay dead — something West is determined to disprove.
The characters sing about everything: sex, coffee breaks, neurological pathways, cats on ice, but none of it has any noticeable impact because it never bounces: It's just there, like a corpse in a morgue. Cynthia Carle has choreographed sufficiently to give the cast a few poses to break up the visual monotony, but again the joke is in the mere fact of singing-and-dancing zombies and their assemblers, not why they're singing or dancing, so the potential for sides splitting is strictly limited.
Gordon hasn't even insisted on a useful supporting structure; he routinely cuts off scenes abruptly, usually before they've made their primary point (or any point at all), just to move on and repeat the cycle. This is never more jarring than in the final scene, which because of the overall lack of commitment to storytelling values peters into nothingness rather than even providing the eye-rolling jolt of the equivalent moment in the movie. What works onscreen simply doesn't automatically work onstage, even if the set (Laura Fine Hawkes), costumes (Joe Kucharski), lights (Jeff Ravitz), and special effects (credited to five separate people) are as otherwise fine as they are here, but there are few other weapons in the creatives' arsenal.
At least the company is solid, with McKenna appealing (if vocally underequipped) as the dopey broad-shouldered hero, Skipper sniveling perfection as the obsessive West, Avery an appropriately dewy ingénue, and Merlin a dazzling deadpan bass in fulfilling an important antagonist's role. An interesting bit of stunt casting finds George Wendt (of Cheers fame) as Megan's mother and the science department's dean; he's neither authoritative nor zany enough to be ideal for the role, but he strikes an amusing figure in a largely thankless part.
Not that the rest of the show offers many more opportunities for originality and expression; it's a one-joke idea given a half-joke execution, so no matter how much (literally) gets dumped on the audience, there's only so much any performer could do. Some winking musicals of this sort are more foolproof, because they realize that, even with limited goals, it's possible to do more. The classic example is Little Shop of Horrors, but even Bat Boy or the considerably more minor Evil Dead (which this resembles most closely, up to and including the usage of the "splash zone") apply the formula in a better, more entertaining way.
Like the undead who populate it, Re-Animator never seems to know what it's doing here or what it's purpose is. That's why, despite all its fidelity and hard work, this show comes closer to DOA than A-OK.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival