Silence! The Musical: Theater Review

It’s not exactly the height of satirical sophistication, but this is certainly a unique 20th anniversary tribute to the Jonathan Demme chiller.

The unauthorized parody of Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning "Silence of the Lambs" stars Brent Barrett and Jenn Harris.

NEW YORK – In the epidemic of movies turned into Broadway musicals, common elements usually include larger-than-life characters and broad-strokes stories that lend themselves naturally to the form. But the central joke of Silence! The Musical is the glaring unsuitability of The Silence of the Lambs as fodder for musicalization.

This unauthorized parody of Jonathan Demme’s supremely creepy Oscar-winning 1991 B-movie began life as a series of songs by brothers Jon and Al Kaplan. A viral Internet following prompted them to try turning the material into a screenplay, which was then adapted for the stage by Hunter Bell of the [title of show] team. The rough-and-ready musical had a sell-out run in the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival and now appears quite at home in the funky, family-run Theatre 80 in the East Village.

The collegiate enthusiasm of Fringe audiences means a lot of lightweight spoof material gets a free pass, particularly when it trowels on the vulgarity and juvenilia with wanton abandon, as does Silence! But the producers and creative team have missed an opportunity to transform the silly, scrappy show into more than an extended Mad TV sketch with hit-and-miss gags. At close to two hours, the overlong two-act musical tends to milk jokes that should be throwaways.

Luckily, director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s proudly low-rent production has assets. There’s Jenn Harris, who skewers Jodie Foster in ways both mocking and affectionate, with her droll slurring drawl and stiff intensity as FBI trainee Clarice Starling. And Broadway veteran Brent Barrett brings serious vocal chops to Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The show also deploys a versatile comic caricaturist in Jeff Hiller (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), who steps out of the Greek chorus of hoof-tapping human lambs to put a goofy spin on minor characters from the Thomas Harris novel and Ted Tally screenplay. Silence! does, however, under-use the talented Deidre Goodwin as Clarice’s enamored FBI classmate, Ardelia.

Among the show’s more winning aspects is the Kaplan brothers’ perverse literal-mindedness in their choice of moments from the movie – and key dialogue – to transform into song. Thus, we get numbers spun out of lines from serial killer Buffalo Bill (Stephen Bienskie) like “Are you about a size 14?” and “It rubs the lotion on its skin”; slimy psychiatric prison supervisor Dr. Chiltern (Harry Bouvy) hitting on Clarice (“Baltimore can be quite a fun town if you have the right guide”); Senator Martin’s televised plea for the return of her abducted daughter (“My daughter is Catherine. Catherine’s her name”) and Lecter’s insistence on hearing Clarice’s secrets in exchange for information (“Quid pro quo”).

The song that most typifies the show’s gross and gamey spirit is a wistful ballad performed with sporting conviction by Barrett, in which Lecter expands upon an unprintable comment made by his cellblock neighbor Multiple Miggs (Hiller) about Clarice. In case the repetition of the line in lyric form isn’t lewd enough, Gattelli supplies dream ballet doubles for Clarice and Lecter (Ashlee Dupree, Callan Bergmann) to up the anatomical explicitness.

As pastiche songs go, these are serviceable enough, and Gattelli has fun dropping in dance references, from tango to toreador to hoedown, from Grease and Saturday Night Fever to Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. There’s even a Chicago homage with the ensemble wielding fans covered with death’s head moths.

The show has way more brashness than authentic wit and is too content to go for easy laughs (a poster for Foster’s The Beaver is among the dusty relics Clarice finds in a Baltimore self-storage unit). But the cast is fully on board with the irreverent agenda and audiences with solid recall of the eccentric quirks of Demme’s movie will get a kick out of its winking acknowledgements.

Venue: Theatre 80, New York (Through Aug. 13)
Cast: Brent Barrett, Jenn Harris, Stephen Bienskie, Harry Bouvy, Deidre Goodwin, Jeff Hiller, Howard Kaye, Lucia Spina, Callan Bergmann, Ashlee Dupre
Music and lyrics: Jon Kaplan, Al Kaplan
Book: Hunter Bell, adapted from the screenplay by Jon Kaplan, Al Kaplan
DIrector-choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: David Kaley
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Carl Casella
Music director-orchestrations: Brian J. Nash
Presented by Victoria Lang, Rich Affannato, Donna Trinkoff, in association with Scott Kirschenbaum, Theater Mogul, Neil Gobioff, Terry Schnuck, John Arthur Pinckard