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: Cupid: Plugged (The Cupid Players)

This Cupid needs to plug some holes

 

The Cupid Players

  
The Cupid Players present
  
The Cupid Players: Plugged!
  
Created by The Cupid Players
Directed by
Brian Posen
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through October 2  |  tickets: $18   |  more info 

Review by Barry Eitel

Relationships. Thanks to relationships, we have Michael Bolton, Shakespeare, and reality TV. It seems all art, maybe even our whole existence, boils down to human interaction. There’s bucketloads of emotions to mine.

The Cupid Players, the masterminds behind Cupid Has a Heart On (got to love those puns) which enjoys an open run at iO, know how to rip out the funny side of love and bare it on stage. Their newest venture, Cupid: Plugged! (got to love that name recognition), is part musical revue and part sketch comedy with a rock concert twist, including roadies. The Players cram a ton of material in the hour-long show. The final setlist is scattershot and disjointed, which is a shame considering the comic talent singing their hearts out.

Each number is completely different from every other one. This works perfectly on Youtube, but not so much in a live stage show. Most of the songs revolve around that crazy little thing called love (and/or sex, and/or desperate loneliness). The boys fall for the girls, the girls nag the boys for leaving towels around the home, one girl wakes up next to a really fat guy after a particularly drunk night. But the songwriters also stray from the theme, and a tune is thrown in about a young man torn between Judaism and bacon. Not that the random injections are unfunny, but they muddle the entire experience. It feels like they needed to fill a few more minutes.

cupid players logo The show is set vaguely in the Reagan era, with plenty of legwarmers, ripped t-shirts, and transition music pulled from heavy metal radio. Yet, someone sings a diddy describing his iPhone. The women claim that they are wives and mothers, but they look like they’re a couple of co-eds headed to 80’s night at the local bar. Some characters would take the show to the next level, even if they were incredibly superficial and just a way to string the songs together. But as it is, Cupid: Plugged! has no string.

The cast, which created the show, has plenty of insight into romance, love, and lust. Sometimes the concepts are simplistic, but these are usually the funniest parts. One of the sharpest moments involves Ranjit Souri sitting alone on a park bench warbling about how “sex would be fun.” A fair amount of the lyrics are duds, but on average the songs inspire much more laughter than yawns.

It helps that the cast is having a ball performing. Through all the dancing, guitar riffs, and synchronized hand movements, they keep the energy high and receptive. Some props have to be paid to Sam Lewis’ guitar antics and Billy Sullivan’s stomach-shaving. Far and above the best part of the show, though, is a 70’s pop duet between Jill Valentine and Tim Soszco, complete with ridiculous wigs and sunglasses. I’ve never actually rolled in an aisle, but I came pretty close.

Soszco and Valentine’s performance was so awesome because they created characters. If director Brian Posen and his merry crew of musical comedians came up with some plot or even an overarching idea, it could be comic bliss. The Cupid Players are without question talented; they don’t just perform sketch, they sing it. But Cupid: Plugged! feels like the Players tossed a bunch of jokes in a blender, dumped the contents out on-stage, and then set the whole thing to music. This isn’t a comedy album, it’s a live show. We want cohesion.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

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Director Brian Posen is joined by Carisa Barreca, Ashley Bush, Andrew Graves, Sam Lewis, Israel Pederson, Tim Soszko, Ranjit Souri, Billy Sullivan, Jill Valentine and Amanda Whitenack.  The band includes Sam Lewis and David Hymen.

REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors (La Costa Theatre)

My, What a Strange and Interesting Play!

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Little Shop of Horrors
 
Book/Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by
Alan Menken
directed by
Dan Sanders-Joyce
Music direction by Ryan Brewster
at
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through July 11th  |  tickets: $25   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

I have a confession. Little Shop of Horrors is my favorite musical of all time.

I have loved the play ever since I saw the movie version as a child. I own a VHS copy of the director’s cut of the film, which features an alternate ending that falls more in line with the play, and I have the Little Shop of Horrors Broadway revival cast recording, which for three months straight was the background music for my workout DSC_0494 routine at the gym. So it was with great excitement that I sat down at the La Costa Theatre, which sits above an auto shop, to see Chicago’s most recent rendition of this contemporary classic.

Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed. I think La Costa has planted the seed for an amazing production. But it hasn’t quite blossomed just yet. And if that’s not enough plant metaphors for you, I believe after a few more shows, this production has the possibility of growing into a four-star play.

Little Shop of Horrors takes place in skid row, a dilapidated, impoverished city slum. Mr. Mushnik (Peter Verdico) is the proprietor of an eponymous flower shop that, like most businesses in the neighborhood, is failing.

Mr. Mushnik employs the fragile Audrey (Ashley Bush) and the nebbish Seymour (Jonathan Hymen). Audrey dates a sadomasochistic dentist (Tom Moore) whose pastimes include riding motorcycles and domestic abuse.

Everyone’s life is pretty miserable until Seymour comes upon a strange and mysterious plant that he dubs the Audrey II (voiced by Brian-Alwyn Newland and controlled by puppeteer Paul Glickman). The plant’s mere presence creates a boon for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop, and Seymour becomes a highly sought after celebrity.

However, Seymour harbors a terrible secret. The plant hungers, and the only thing that can satisfy its ever-growing appetite is human blood. And it demands that Seymour feeds it.

The acting is spot on. Hymen’s Seymour is the quintessential underdog nerd. He’s slouchy, he’s disheveled and he’s meek. Still, Seymour is a very passionate character, especially when it comes to matters of the heart and of ethical decisions, and Hymen transmits this with the required restraint.

Bush’s Audrey isn’t as much of a bimbo as other incarnations that I’ve seen, which is completely acceptable as Audrey isn’t stupid so much as she is incredibly insecure and self-effacing. This is a girl who honestly believes she deserves to be abused. But despite being damaged goods, Audrey is also a hopeless romantic, dreaming of one day living in a suburban home where the furniture is wrapped in plastic. Bush captures this hopefulness and hopelessness. It also doesn’t hurt that she has one of the strongest voices in the cast.

 

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I’m sure it must be very difficult to create a giant, man-eating puppet for the stage. But Glickman, who has years of experience as a puppeteer, has created a remarkable Audrey II. I was blown away by how a small independent theatre company managed to create such an amazing special effect for the stage.

There was a technical downside to the production. The sound quality throughout the play was at best adequate and at worst terrible. The balance of the vocals and the live music was completely off. Often the thump of the bass would drown out all of the singers. Even when no music played, the volume of the actors’ mics varied widely. I had hoped this would have been fixed by the second act, but, to my surprise, it was not.

Also, director Dan Sanders-Joyce didn’t do a very good job of spreading the action throughout the theater. The space is rather large, but much of the actors’ movements are relegated to a small part of the stage. This often leads to poor views for half the audience.

La Costa desperately needs to fix Little Shop of Horrorstechnical glitches. (I suppose you could say they need to nip them in the bud.) Otherwise, the company has well-crafted and entertaining production.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
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