Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

The Zombies of Penzance
New Line Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of This Random World


Sean Michael and Melissa Felps
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
I've actually done Gilbert & Sullivan before. And let me tell you, the tone was wrong, the leading lady lost her voice, and the whole thing seemed hopelessly out of date. But this time, with a little modern twist in the plot (and lots of magnificent singing), this new version of The Pirates of Penzance, titled The Zombies of Penzance, comes beautifully alive.

It's a world premiere production, thanks to New Line Theatre founder and show co-director Scott Miller, who has playfully revised the book and lyrics (and added lots of green and grey make-up for the men). And surprisingly, this has actually strengthened the tone of the show, in age beyond the legends of pirates. But The Zombies of Penzance stays true to the modern zombie idiom, and what we get is a hapless band of the undead, in place of a hapless band of pirates. John Gerdes supplies new, comical orchestral flourishes throughout, in his very slightly revised version of Sir Arthur Sullivan's score.

Mike Dowdy-Windsor co-directs, and I can't help but think that his bubbly personality helps keep the actors buoyant throughout. All of a sudden it's a modern show, but with an incredibly lush musical sound we scarcely deserve, here in this modern, profane age. (Spoiler-alert, there is occasional profanity).

Pirates were the highwaymen of the seas, in the days when everyone traveled by sailing ship. So it seems natural that William Schwenck Gilbert would seize upon them as a plot device in 1879. Today, pirates are said to be making a comeback in the waters off the coast of troubled Venezuela. But it's still zombies that have all the cultural currency, 139 years later. And it's October, and Halloween isn't just "Christmas for gays" anymore. So thank God (and George Romero) for The Zombies of Penzance.

Frederic is played by Sean Michael, with a shimmering but thoroughly unpretentious tenor voice; and the lad isn't really sure whether he's a zombie or not, because of, well, I forget, but how can he be a zombie with no functioning heart and yet still fall hopelessly in love with Mabel? The conundrum gives leeway to many a fraught duet. In these twinnings, Mabel (the equally splendid Melissa Felps) urges him on, to renounce his own life of lifelessness. The problem, of course, is that all his friends are zombies, and all her sisters (the estimable Christina Rios, Kimi Short, and Lindsey Jones) disapprove, as does her father (Zachary Allen Farmer), a retired Major-General in the former zombie wars.

Mr. Farmer, as Major-General Stanley, is blithe and self-assured in that madcap song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," re-written here as the spritely "Modern-Era Zombie Killer." And as luck would have it, Mr. Gilbert's wit is easily brought forward to our time in the very clever rewrites by Mr. Miller, throughout the show. (With mutton-chops and a pith-helmet, Mr. Farmer resembles Jim Broadbent, who played the gruff librettist in the 1999 movie Topsy-Turvy.)

Dominic Dowdy-Windsor seems to have found his true calling in light opera: he's a free and breezy baritone in all his rolling melodies, and a comical, glowering Zombie King. His able assistants include the born-in-a-trunk (and then dug-up-while-rotting) Kent Coffel as Zombie Sam. They, and everyone in the show, find the perfect pitch of Gilbert & Sullivan, with a handful of great modern comical touches thrown into the bargain.

I really feared it was going to be a one-joke show. But it's deliciously rich, and a great tribute to the original—skewering the zombie genre and subtly reviving the bygone art of light operatic romance in the bargain. The Pirate Maid Ruth has mysteriously vanished in this version (she may have run off with the Sergeant of Police, who is also AWOL). And there are also a couple of slow moments in act two. But it's undeniably the perfect marriage of creative minds, across more than a century. And with all those brilliant choristers on stage, you just can't kill it.

The Zombies of Penzance, through October 20, 2018, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (with secure parking behind Powell Hall and Circus Flora, a block west of Compton Ave.), St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.

The Players:
Frederic: Sean Michael
Mabel: Melissa Felps
Major-General Stanley: Zachary Allen Farmer
Zombie King: Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Zombie Sam: Kent Coffel
Edith: Christina Rios
Isabel: Kimi Short
Kate: Lindsey Jones
More Daughters: Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak, Sarah Porter
More Zombies: Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Tim Kaniecki, Kyle Kelesoma

The New Line Band:
Conductor/Piano: Nicolas Valdez
French Horn: John Gerdes
Reeds: Lea Gerdes
Bassoon: Joseph Hendricks
Cello: Emily Trista Lane
Violin: Twinda Murry
Reeds: Kelly Austermann/Hope Walker

The Artistic Staff:
Directors: Scott Miller, Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Music Director: Nicolas Valdez
Stage Manager: Erin Goodenough
Scenic Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Sarah Porter
Lighting Designer: Kenneth Zinkl
Sound Designer: Ryan Day
Props Master: Kimi Short
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy


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