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Renowned Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon made his film debut in 1985 with a freely-rendered modernization of an H.P. Lovecraft story, itself a gloss on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A quarter-century later he and writers Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris return to the same material with a killer score by Mark Nutter that carries most of the action with the same brio as a verismo opera while striking a resolutely contemporary attitude on the far side of irony.
Beyond the current Los Angeles engagement, commercial prospects are promising indeed, with a long Off-Broadway run conceivable unless the project is stigmatized as a local Los Angeles product. However, the show is heavily dependent upon Gordon’s fine hand and while it could flourish in a bigger house, anything larger than 400 seats would likely attenuate its impact.
Mad plot has med student Herbert West (Graham Skipper) concocting a serum that shocks the brains of the recently dead to a state of “re-animation”. Beleaguered by an academically dishonest professor (Jesse Merlin), West’s work lends itself to misunderstanding. When he persuades his roommate Dr. Dan Cain (Chris L. McKenna) of its surpassing value by experimenting on his pet cat, Cain becomes his ally, but the latter’s girlfriend Megan (Rachel Avery), the dean’s daughter who won’t move in until they are married, doesn’t share his enthusiasm. Mayhem ensues.
Gordon does wonders with the utterly cramped space at the Steve Allen, conjuring up an epic number of scenes and locations in front of a half-wall and door by continually inviting the audience to share the imaginative experience of creating a theatrical perception. A production in which every effect creates intricate attitudes and reactions, all of which are splendidly calibrated despite their relentless excess and homely provenance, this is Grand Guignol resurrected unabashedly, for the terror of nervous laughter both delightful and distressed. The show revels in gore to high and low purpose simultaneously, to the extent that the first three rows are designated a splatter zone for which ponchos are urged upon patrons seated there (even so, the actors revel in extending the range of liquid blood and viscous guts as far as they propel them).
Nutter’s score sounds aptly cheesy as played on the synthesizer, yet his vocal lines are richly sophisticated and the lyrics pointed and precise. The horror movie vibe is amplified by a genuine operatic ambition. Though it can be experienced as hipper progeny of Little Shop of Horrors, its complex themes breathtakingly balanced between facetiousness and convictions mark it as every bit as credible an opera production as The Turn of the Screw (currently at the Los Angeles Opera) or Akhnaten (presently at the Long Beach Opera), and in its substance rather more contemporary than either.
While it may have been daunting for Jeff Bridges to fill John Wayne’s boots in True Grit, a steeper challenge arguably confronts Graham Skipper in surpassing memories of the protean original Herbert West, Jeffrey Coombs, which he masters with grand gestures that manage to produce nuanced effects. Chris McKenna makes a flesh-and-blood creation of the square-jawed hero, and Jesse Merlin’s vocal stylings create a richly villainous portrait that sustains itself despite the indignities of scene-stealing mutilations.
Venue: The Steve Allen Theater, Los Angeles (runs through May 29)
Music & Lyrics: Mark Nutter.
Book: Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon & William J. Norris, adapted from the story by H.P. Lovecraft, based on the film “H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator” produced by Brian Yuzna.
Cast: Graham Skipper, Chris L. McKenna, Rachel Avery, Jesse Merlin, Harry S. Murphy, Cynthia Carle, Marlon Grace, Liesl Hanson, Mark Beltzman, Brian Gillespie.
Director: Stuart Gordon.
Musical Direction, Sound Design And Arrangements: Peter Adams.
Special Effects: Tony Doublin, John Naulin, John Buechler, Tom Devlin, Greg McDougall.
Choreography: Cynthia Carle.
Lighting: Jeff Ravitz.
Sets: Laura Fine Hawkes.
Costumes: Joe Kucharski.
Produced by Dean Schramm & Stuart Gordon. Presented by Red Hen Productions and The Schramm Group LLC in association with the Steve Allen Theater.
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