I'm convinced that Jenn Harris could read the tax code onstage and make it the must-see comic event of the year. The pert, pint-sized actress, who's got a personality large enough to support her matchless timing, rocketed to notice last season with Sex*But and Modern Orthodox, the latter of which she stole right out from under Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, and Jason Biggs. Now, she's set her sights higher: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.
No, those two film stars aren't anywhere near the Lucille Lortel Stage, and if they know what's good for them they'll keep it that way. They may have delivered iconic, Oscar-winning performances in Jonathan Demme's brilliant 1991 film version of The Silence of the Lambs, but onstage in its musical parody, Silence! The Musical, Harris would eat them up with some fava beans and... well, you probably know the rest.
Even if you've memorized the film, Harris - playing Foster's role of FBI trainee Clarice Starling - makes every moment lilt and pop like a fresh creation. Her dark brown, wall-of-hair wig is an ironic puff-up of Foster's style; her meaty yet mushy tones bespeak the same Southern upbringing squelched in favor of professional assimilation. Okay, so Harris can, at best, only carry a tune - her refraction of the varied elements of Clarice's character into a full-rounded portrayal of a grow-for-broke dynamo shows that she's doing everything possible to make Clarice's search for serial killer Buffalo Bill the most fun it could possibly be.
But this is not a one-person show. And it's when Harris isn't at center stage that the seams in the book (Hunter Bell) and score (Jon and Al Kaplan) are most obvious. Everyone else involved, including director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, satisfies themselves working within the simplest, most obvious realms of parody that Harris has no patience for. While there's hardly a weak link in this gleamingly polished collection of talent, no one else at his or her best can tough Harris at her worst.
Paul Kandel, for example, playing the brutally brilliant Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter, mimics Hopkins's viciously consoling voice attitude with pinpoint acuity, but finds no new colors in his imitation. It doesn't help that his establishing song, about his inability to smell a certain part of the female body, is just an excuse for a cheesy (if amusing) dance number that has no real bearing on Lecter's character - there's nothing for Kandel to (if you'll pardon the expression) bite into.
Other equally terrific performers suffer similar fates: When Bill (Stephen Bienskie), a pre-op transvestite, sings his big solo, it's a coy gay strip tease that doesn't so much poke fun at the film as gently nudge it. A vaudeville-style number for Lecter's sadistic handler, Dr. Chilton (Harry Bouvy) is, like most of Lecter's victims, D.O.A. Howard Kaye's opportunities in two patriarchal roles are essentially non-existent; the wasted Deidre Goodwin only gets to strut her stuff in a girl-group number of minimal connection to the plot.
Only when the writers delve most fervently into their characters' overblown eccentricities do they find the biggest laughs. (This is and always has been the secret to top-notch parody.) This is seldom better demonstrated than in a song sung by Lisa Howard (in her off hours from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as a Washington lawmaker whose daughter Bill kidnaps. Her faux-passionate song, which consists of little more than repeating her daughter's name and plastic platitudes over and over again, is one of the only times a riff on a single moment from the movie builds to a legitimate, show-stopping size. (Howard also plays the daughter, with an exasperated enthusiasm that's strangely infectious for a girl about to be made into a coat.)
Gattelli has a knack for making good moments great, but is limited in his ability to make most roof-raisers of only mild laughs. His dances, which are steeped in the near-erotic athleticism of Bob Fosse, are beautifully devised and characterfully executed by the cast, but have nothing to do with the show they're in. And Gattelli certainly knows how to keep the show's energy boisterous throughout, and bring real stage know-how to recreating the film's most memorable moments. Scott Pask's sets, David Kaley's costumes, and Jeff Croiter's lights are all wily wittiness personified.
But only Harris's work is truly inspired. As much fun as it is to see such a fun-loving skewering of a great contemporary film, nothing else lives up to the comedic promises she makes and delivers time and time again. Bell's book is laden with good jokes, and the Kaplans' songs, if not great music or great parody, are serviceable time fillers. But they - and everything and everyone else about Silence! The Musical - need a few layers of polish before they're worthy of sharing the stage with Harris, who stakes her claim to all the evening's best laughs - and hopefully theatrical stardom - merely by showing up.
Silence! The Musical