Silence! was pushing it when it debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2005. If not for the then - recent (and phenomenal) success of Urinetown and The Producers, which signaled a sea change in what the Great White Way would tolerate, Jon and Al Kaplan (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) would have been too late to poke fun at the 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs. Sure, its central performances by Oscar winners Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins had already attained iconic status. But was there anything left to say, or any interesting way left to say it? When a planned post-Fringe run was scuttled, reportedly due to issues with the rights holders of the film, it seemed as though the question had been answered.
But no. So here we are, 20 years after the Jonathan Demme movie’s triumph, and six years after still more (some might say too many) of these anything-for-a-gag titles have all but drowned out honesty in the New York theatrical realm. There is, at least, good news and bad news worth discussing about the “unauthorized” musical’s re-opening, although in both cases it’s the same news: With much of the cast (including stunning leading lady Jenn Harris) and the creative team (led by director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli) intact, Silence! today registers almost exactly as it did in its brief, packed-to-the-rafters run six years ago.
This means the story of FBI special agent trainee Clarice Starling (Harris), who’s on the trail of the vicious serial killer Buffalo Bill, is still scribed in the broadest and silliest strokes that gleefully assassinate the nuances of the movie. Clarice must fight off the latent sexism of her boss-to-be Jack Crawford (Howard Kaye), the unstated lesbianism between her and her classmate Ardelia (Deidre Goodwin), and the smarmy nastiness of clinical psychiatrist Frederick Chilton (Harry Buoy) as she battles stage tropes and the questionable advances of the brilliant and violent madman who’s her only entrée to Buffalo Bill’s mind, Dr. Hannibal Lectern (Brent Barrett).
Bell has followed the story slavishly, so even if you’re (gasp) not familiar with the movie or if the finer points have faded with time, you’ll never get lost. But what he hasn’t also done is transcend his source material to unearth any truly zany chaos. Aside from the throbbing sexual tension with Ardelia, he’s invented nothing that shoves events in new and unexpected directions. We get the usual “HA-ha” gags — Clarice must hand Hannibal a prop from around a set piece, a moth lands on her face to recreate the movie’s surreal poster art, the gunfight in the dark takes on excess scurrying and franticness beneath Jeff Croiter’s green floodlights, and sheep ears and hooves abound in David Kaley’s costume plot — but neither Bell nor Gattelli let any trenchant insights supplant the film’s haunting imagery and characterizations.
Is any of this funny? Yes — particularly if the work of Foster, Hopkins, and Demme is seared in your mind — but it’s never hilarious. (If you’re expecting Bell to deliver the kind of never-see-it-coming zingers he did with Jeff Bowen in [title of show], relinquish those dreams now.) But the Kaplans’ score is more obligatory still. It chisels a one-level dream ballet from Hannibal’s inability to smell a crucial part of Clarice’s anatomy, transforms Clarice’s professional progression into a lounge-style crooning number, and reduces the psychotic ministrations of Buffalo Bill (Stephen Bienskie) to a gay strip tease, but contains precious few jokes that accidentally land. Aside from that ballet (danced, gamely, by Callan Bergmann and Ashlee Dupré), punctuated with visual references to the object of Lecter’s, um, fixation, the songs contain no pointed humor at all.
All the heavy lifting falls to the cast, only some of whom are up to the challenge. Jeff Hiller, a doyen of this type of production, turns a handless man’s attempt to grasp a business card into a giddy, prototypical example of the downtown aesthetic. But Bienskie’s faux seriousness, Goodwin’s straight-faced deadpan, and Lucia Spina’s earnestness as a kidnapped girl and her straitlaced mother don’t unlock any surprise laughs in the writing, but call attention to all the wasted potential. Barrett sings marvelously, but conveys no creepiness or menace, closing off Hannibal from major comedic avenues.
Harris, however, misses no opportunity. Adopting a pitch-perfect drawly West Virginia accent and wearing a wall of hair that often seems to have a mind of its own, her Clarice channels Foster’s without ever being a note-by-note impersonation. With impossibly expressive facial features, including a nose and cheeks that are active partners in squeezing out strained words, and some of the best timing in the business, Harris derives endless enjoyment from her laser focus on the unexpected, and makes even the most tired moments seem spontaneous. She represents, in other words, as advanced a plying of her trade as Foster did two decades ago, which gives her a soul and a sheen that light up the otherwise dim surroundings.
One suspects that, in the future, Harris won’t be spoken of in the same lofty tones that Foster and Hopkins are today. But she deserves to be. Those superstars further elevated excellent material, but Harris has it even tougher — although you’d never know it. She’s so luminescent, and ultimately successful at wrenching heady sophistication and deep guffaws from these lowest-brow (and lowest-common-denominator) exploits that otherwise strain for chuckles, it somehow never matters that the good-enough show she’s at the center of is never actually good.
Silence! The Musical