REVIEW: Musical of the Living Dead (Cowardly Scarecrow)

 

A Zombie-licious Ghoul’s Delight

 

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Cowardly Scarecrow Productions present
   
Musical of the Living Dead
   
Book/Lyrics by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
Music/Arrangements by Mary Spray and
Matt Mehawich
Directed by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Charnel House is certainly an apropos venue for Musical of the Living Dead: its former life was as an old-style funeral home. Gothic wood paneling and light fixtures set the right tone for Cowardly Scarecrow Productions’ ribald horror spoof depicting the dead, annoyingly, not staying dead. Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts, co-creators of book and lyrics, are the madmen behind the mayhem, aided by partners in crime Musical of Living Dead - Scarecrow 020 Mary Spray on music and Matt Mehawich on arrangements. What can be said about cast and crew? They come from Columbia College—or at least most of them. One suspects their cohesiveness depends, in part, on shared training and collegiate associations—if one may use that professional term.

Musical of the Living Dead lies just inches from being a musical comedy that could be juxtaposed with, quote, legitimate theater, unquote. There’s just a tinge of that vibe one finds with the sort of comedy reviews one ventures to Annoyance Theatre for—slap dash irreverence that often looks slapped together. But Spray and Mehawich’s musical arrangements reveal startling sophistication. Plus, acting, singing and dancing quality definitely soars above standard Annoyance fare. Something aspirational peeks out from Cowardly Scarecrow’s lampoon of stereotypical horror plot involving randomly thrown together people escaping zombie hoards. It’s as if they were genuinely striving to create a new Rocky Horror or Little Shop of Horrors.

Good for them that they’ve got some decent crazy ladies for whom to sell their spoof. Barbra Flowers (Jill Valentine), the show’s virgin good girl (sort of), loses her brother Johnny (Tim Soszko) to a zombie attack while trying to lay a wreath at Grampa’s (sic) grave. It’s one thing to watch Barbra unhinge at the prospect of fighting zombies from an abandoned house alongside the musical’s lone black man, Ben Blackman (Quinton Guyton). It’s another to see her get uncomfortably personal with the other fugitives–including the stuffed deer’s head on the wall–while relaying her zombie escape story. Once that happens, you know the girl is gone!

Gone is the only way to describe Helen Cooper (Mandy Whitenack), a dame who views life, and her blighted marriage, through an alcoholic haze. Warring, conservative husband Harry (Billy Sullivan) simply can’t keep up with her. Whitenack pulls out every bit of Betty Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and God-knows-what overripe-screen-star to execute Helen’s boozy domination.

 

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That leaves the rest of the cast to fill out all the other horror flick stereotypes–slutty hick sisters Judy (Liz McArthur) and Trudy McCoy (Mary Spray); Ted (Jonathan Hymen) as the closet gay dude; Fran Davis (Ashley Bush) as the Fox News journalist with over-whipped hair; and helicopter pilot Steve Sherbotsky (Ryan V. Brinkerhoff) as her lover. McArthur cleverly doubles as Karen, Helen and Harry’s little girl, who stays sick in the basement past the point of zombie return. Jacob Clausen opens the musical as George, poetically profound fright fest announcer.

That leaves our hero, Ben, to carry the day and save Barbra from imminent un-death. Most comic interactions between cast members keep the flow going and the musical energy high. However, what holds Musical of the Living Dead back is its over-reliance on typical plot developments, typical horror genre characters and typical schlock comedy splatter. Musical of the Living Dead succeeds most when it takes the audience to uncanny, unexpected places. Ben, being the lone voice of reason among a gang of crazy white people, isn’t allowed to get his Rambo on until the end. That’s really too bad. After all, between the living and the undead, there’s really only so much a brother can take.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: 26 Miles (Teatro Vista and Rivendell Ensemble)

‘26 Miles’ is quite the trip!

 

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Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present
   
26 Miles
   
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Tara Mallen
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

The distance between Philadelphia and Wyoming is 1,835 miles. The distance between a mother and daughter is further away and closer than that. Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present the Midwest premiere of 26 Miles by Tony-Award winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. Quirky teenager Olivia runs away from her dad’s house. She is assisted in the escape by her mother. After throwing up fifteen times, Olivia is desperate for someone to care. She calls her biological mother, Beatriz, who had given up custody and visitation rights eight years earlier. In fact, 26Miles6282according to Olivia’s journal log, Beatriz hasn’t spoken to her daughter in five months. A spontaneous road trip to see buffalo becomes a journey of self-realization for mother and daughter. With a jamming 80’s soundtrack, 26 Miles is a trip of discovery that takes some surprising turns.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes doesn’t rush to the destination. Hudes allows the characters to continue to identify themselves right up until the show comes to a complete stop. The mother-daughter duo drives the experience perfectly. Ashley Neal (Olivia) is hilarious as the creative philosophical teenager. She muses her journal thoughts out loud with “note: do I believe in…” She publishes a magazine. Neal is that high school geek that is too smart to fit in. Her animated face adds another layer of humor to her stellar performance. Sandra Marquez (Beatriz) is the feisty Cuban mother. Marquez rages with impulsiveness. Unlike Neal’s character, Marquez is not easily recognizable. As the M.I.A. mom, Marquez has to work extra hard to win the audience over. Marquez commits for the long haul! She faces the situation with wise resignation of ‘it’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s like erosion. It just is.’ Keith Kupferer (Aaron) and Edward Torres (Manuel) are the guys that cause the gals to run. They take a back seat to the mother-daughter bonding. Although their supporting roles are important, it’s their amusing scene transition antics that are most memorable.

 

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Director Tara Mallen has mapped the journey with purposeful appeal. Mallen doesn’t settle with poignant performances by a talented cast. She adds in paper flying, music blaring and Blues Brothers’ scene transitions. The extras provide the scenic route on what could be a long road trip. The scenery itself also supplies a subtle layer of storytelling. The set, designed by Regina Garcia, has a slanted floor with suspended stairs that don’t quite connect. The backdrop is a snippet of Olivia’s journal with pictures and words. It’s a trip! Teatro Vista and Rivendell travel well together; all the parts work together for high performance. It’s the truly collaborative effort that catapults 26 Miles to go the distance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
    

26 Miles plays every Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm through November 21st.  Running time is 90-minutes with no intermission.

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