Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Night of the Living Dead! The Musical!
Minneapolis Musical Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Rocky Horror Show, Elektra, Snow White, Pipeline, The Hollow, Nate the Great, the Musical, and Mean Girls


Christian Unser, Max Kile, Mitchell Douglas
and Rachel Schmidt

Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
Minneapolis Musical Theatre's clever catchphrase is "Rare musicals, well done." Most of the time they live up their claim, with such low profile or out-on-the-edge fare as Bat Boy, Leap of Faith, The Toxic Avenger, and High Fidelity mounted in high quality productions that make up for small budgets with heaps of invention, talent and heart.

Their latest gambit is Night of the Living Dead! The Musical!, based on the 1968 movie of the same name directed by George A. Romero, and drawing in plot updates from the film's 1990 remake. Just in time for Halloween comes a show about a zombie menace rampaging through human populations, told with song, dance, and such broad winks that its creators might need corrective care from an ophthalmologist.

The original film, its six sequels, and the remake, along with colorized and 3-D versions along the way, are among the most violent movies ever released. The film first appeared in September 1968 as a matinee feature, the norm for horror movies at the time. It was two months before the MPAA rating codes (G, PG, R and X, with PG13 added some years later) were put into effect, so children were permitted to attend without adult accompaniment. There were reports of terrible trauma experienced by children as young as nine watching this blood bath, and it was cited as a good example of why the MPAA ratings were needed.

The musical version, with book, music and lyrics by Jordan Wolfe, on the other hand, while including violent acts, depicts them in such a clownish manner, with floaty red scarves to represent spilled blood, that it is hard to imagine any child over the age of five being truly frightened. Still, the motif of a zombie apocalypse and its ensuing kill or be killed ethos is not recommended for youngsters. Frankly, I would advise a number of adults I know to give the show a wide berth on those same grounds.

Another reason to give the show a wide berth is that it is not a very good musical. Now, before you stop reading, let me say, I had a good time at Night of the Living Dead! The Musical! just because it is delivered with such earnest good spirits. Yet, I have to admit, from a critical standpoint, the material is pretty weak. Oh, it is campy fun if you like that kind of thing, and if you are a fan of the real-deal movie, you are likely to enjoy this send-up rendition, which follows the plot pretty closely but pokes all of its bizarre conceits in the eye. Minneapolis Musical Theatre does its level best to make this material come alive—a tall order for a show about the undead.

The cast gamely throw themselves into these cartoon-like roles, and director Ryan McGuire Grimes keeps the narrative rolling along, heedless of the absence of logic or purpose other than to have some fun. I am totally in favor of having fun, so if that's your primary aim in seeking out a theater ticket, Night of the Living Dead! The Musical! might fit the bill nicely. If you are looking for something to stimulate a little thinking or stir some genuine emotion, or demonstrate the artistry of musical theater, you may want to take a pass.

The show, like the movie, begins with Barbara and her brother Johnny driving away from their home in the city to visit their mother's grave in a rural Pennsylvania cemetery. You know something is askew when their prayer at the gravesite is addressed to Satan. Really, how surprised can we be that trouble awaits them? The first zombie attack gets the better of Johnny, but Barbara makes it to a remote farmhouse where she runs into another person fleeing the zombies, the stalwart Ben. In act one, the radio, and in act two, a television that materializes out of the blue, issue news reports from the outside, presented as campy comedy bits. Then, Barbara and Ben discover several others who have been hiding in the farmhouse basement: Harry, his alcoholic wife Helen, their ailing daughter Betty-Lou, and a couple of young lovers—meek Tom and ready-for-action Judy.

The parties bicker over the best way to protect themselves from the deadly menace, so that plot shifts to conflicts among the living humans until it is time to unleash the dead humans upon them. A local sheriff, a no-nonsense straight-shooter but perhaps out of his league against the undead, completes the assemblage of characters.

Jordan Wolfe's songs are forgettable, but several serve their purpose in the course of the show. The opening number, "What Could Go Wrong?," hints broadly that the answer will be "plenty!" "They're Coming to Get You Barbara" works well to animate a chase scene, and "Under Control" offers a sense of Ben's disposition, shared with Barbara in an act two reprise. Two songs make for super character numbers: "Dan the Science Man/Radiation," with Max Kile doing a very funny spoof of a TV science guy; and "This Ain't My First Rodeo," which is actually a showstopper as performed by all-in Christian Unser as Sheriff Tractor.

Aside from the splendid turns by Mr. Kile and Mr. Unser, Rachel Schmidt gives a solid performance as Barbara, showing us the machinations of her character's thinking as she tries to keep from utter panic. Mitchell Douglas is well suited to playing the brave, level-headed male who assumes the role of Barbara's protector, getting some mileage out of several opportunities to bare his chest. He is also pretty funny in drag as news reporter Adda Morgue. Ally O'Keefe is hilarious as the constantly sloshed Helen, though some might be taken aback by making so much of a fun time out of someone's raging alcoholism. Alex Waitinas makes Judy, with her engines always fired up, a likeable character, and Max Kile is well matched to her as Tom.

A couple of doors—one to the basement, one to the outside world—a couple of asymmetrical windows, a broken-down couch, side table, and a camp trunk form Will Slayden's cartoon-like set. The costumes designed by A. Emily Heaney are well matched to each character's singular personality. Sound designer Abe Gabor has come up with fearsome zombie sounds that ratchet up the suspense—though never is there a moment that actually induces fright, given the goofball nature of the whole endeavor. Chris Adam's choreography is limited by the small Phoenix Theatre stage, but enlivens the proceedings at several points with some real zest while maintaining the spirit of a spoof.

So, yes, I did have a good time at Night of the Living Dead! The Musical!—call it a guilty pleasure—and perhaps you will have a good time too. Just be warned, not of a zombie apocalypse, but of a spirited but goofy show that vaporizes as soon as you leave the theater, with no lingering substance or images. Like trick-or-treat candy, it can give you a sugar rush, but ten minutes later you may barely remember it.

Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Night of the Living Dead! The Musical! runs through October 27, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre, 2605 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $35.00, "obstructed view" seating: $25.00; Students and seniors (65+) - $25.00 for all seats. For tickets call 612-440-6681 or visit www.aboutmmt.org.

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jordan Wolfe, based on the film Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero and John A. Russo; Director: Ryan McGuire Grimes; Music Director: Jean Orbison Van Heel; Choreographer: Chris Adam; Set Design: Will Slayton; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Abe Gabor: Props Design: Joe Hendren; Production Coordinator: Miranda Shunkwiler; Stage Manager: Emily "Remi" Remmey; Assistant Stage Manager Cary Van Heel.

Cast: Mitchell Douglas (Ben/Adda Morgue), Max Kile (Tom/Johnny/Dan the Science Man), Aly O'Keefe (Helen/Holden D'Séance), Rachel Schmidt (Barbara/Dr. Gretchen), Christian Unser (Harry/ Sheriff Tractor/Zombie #1), Alex Waitinas (Judy/Betty-Lou/Robin Graves/Dr. Greishen).


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