Did you hear about the dyslexic zombie with the insatiable appetite for "Brians?"
Zombie jokes like that overrun Song of the Living Dead at Dad's Garage, and not all of them inspire unearthly groans. The queasily funny world-premiere musical features songs, dances and copious amounts of stage blood and grisly effects.
The unusual thing about Song of the Living Dead is not that Dad's improviser Matt Horgan, Lawrenceburg playwright Travis Sharp and composer Eric Frampton would create a musical about undead cannibals. Dad's Garage's previous musical fare includes Reefer Madness, Debbie Does Dallas, and an in-house spoof of Steven King's Carrie. Surprisingly, a zombie musical doesn't really raise eyebrows in the current cultural zeitgeist. A Toronto theater even beat Dad's to the punch with its hit Evil Dead: The Musical, beginning in 2003.
Flesh-eating corpses have become practically inescapable in the pop landscape. Perhaps their mindlessness adds to their appeal. Their stupidity makes zombies potentially funny, and their lack of personality makes it easy to drop them into practically any context, such as the ghouls at the mall in George Romero's precedent-setting Dawn of the Dead. The indie film Dance of the Dead, shot in Rome, Ga., and screened at this year's Atlanta Film Festival, combined zombies with the high school comedy genre. Maybe the weirdest variation was Marvel Zombies, a limited comic book series that imagined the likes of Spider-Man as undead flesh-eaters.
Like the hilarious "zom rom-com" Shaun of the Dead, Song of the Living Dead doesn't offer a detailed explanation, but takes the zombie apocalypse as a given. The play opens with a CDC researcher giving the scientific explanation of the current plague and crooning "There's No Such Thing as Zombies" before being attacked and eaten by the undead. Megan Leahy and fight choreographer Stephen Platinum lurch through the show as the heavily made-up male and female "head" zombies.
Per the horror-movie formula, the play follows a group of uninfected humans trying to survive the zombie outbreak. Gabriel Dean and Erin Lorette appealingly play George and Judith, a squeaky-clean couple drawn a little too much like the seemingly wholesome Brad and Janet from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. George proposes to Judith in the sunny song "Nothing Can Go Wrong," right before all hell breaks loose.
Horgan and Sharp unify the various plot threads by exploring different aspects of love, a theme neatly tied up in the show's incongruously upbeat final number. Z Gillispie amusingly swaggers through the role of Judith's obsessive ex-boyfriend, a rich, heavily armed alpha male whose rock song, "I'm Fucking Awesome," proves both raunchy and incriminating. Peggy (Gina Rickicki), a doctor who prefers working in a morgue, sings about her difficulty connecting with the living in the faux-poignant "Socially Retarded."
Intolerant Rev. Seabrook (George Faughnan) finds his religious love put to the test when God fails to give him celestial powers during the zombie attacks. Seabrook's gospel-influenced songs provide most of the play's liveliest and most cleverly written numbers (others, like a brutal square dance, feel like unfinished ideas). Faughnan hilariously takes Seabrook from thundering on the pulpit to cowering in a trash can as he bemoans his fate with "Why Are You Cornholing Me, Jesus?" (Incidentally, Sharp's amusement at the word "cornhole" may be a signature of his work.)
Even compared with Faughnan's impeccable comedic timing, Atlanta gore-effects guru Chris Brown proves to be the show's MVP. The audience expects a certain amount of disgusting content in a production like this, which is meant to be more a goofy spectacle than a serious inquiry into the human condition. Song of the Living Dead doesn't stint on its effects, and when you see the blood-squirting heads and unspooling intestines, you can tell Brown loves his work.
Some of the violence, however, comes across as more serious than merely gleeful gross-outs. A few scenes touch on dark ideas that aren't easy to laugh off, even for audiences desensitized to gruesome sight gags. Director Kate Warner exhibits less confidence with the play's grim sequences than she does with the cheerfully icky ones.
Like the show's undead extras, Song of the Living Dead tends to move at a shamble, and the long blackouts between scenes emphasize the play's episodic structure. They admittedly offer breaks to clean up the set and provide some eerie moments – will a zombie get you in your seat when the lights go out? But they also keep the musical from building up narrative momentum along the lines of a kitschy monster fest such as The Little Shop of Horrors.
Song of the Living Dead still shows a smart satiric sensibility. When the protagonists find temporary refuge at Party City, a bystander speaks enviously of the better-armed sanctuary across the street at the Ace Hardware. The cast seems game for anything the creators throw at them, with Lorette showing a stronger singing voice than you might expect from the material. Dean makes George an unflappable optimist, singing a chirpy tune about Party City in the first act, and alternating deftly between the lyrics of a love ballad and zombified moaning in the second.
Song of the Living Dead concludes with a nod to the choreography of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Coincidentally, I've seen the same lurching dance moves in three shows by young Atlanta theater artists this decade, which could point to zombie vogue for their generation. The attraction to funny zombies may be a way to face mortality with a smile on your face, a song in your heart and other organs taken out for dinner.
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