A show with a title like Zombies on Broadway brings with it certain expectations. There will be zombies. There will be Broadway. There will be campy music. Off the Wall Theatre delivers on all of these things with its season-ending musical comedy. The premiere of Dale Gutzman’s hand-crafted original show ambles humorously across the stage, successfully avoiding the potential genius of its premise. The show instead curls somewhat charismatically around a mid-twentieth century musical sitcom format that capably delivers light, inconsequential comedy to an intimate stage. Gutzman’s done far better work with his original shows in the past. The campy cheesiness of Zombies on Broadway doesn’t reanimate well enough to live-up to his best work.
Michelle Waide lifelessly generates laughter as Dottie Lotrine: a faded star of Broadway who has been turned into a zombie in order to ensure that her latest show opens on time as expected.
Dale Gutzman is admirably flawed as Carl Denham—the man who brought the disaster out giant ape Ling Kong to New York. He looks to make-up for it by reviving a dead actress and teaching her to sing and dance.
Among those pulled into the horror of the endeavor is broadway star Gilbert Goddard played with comic grace and poise by a dapper Mark Neufang in a pencil-thin mustache. Neufang has a very nuanced and sophisticated understanding of campy comedy that fosters some of the best comic moments in the production. Kristin Pagenkopf also exhibits a clever mastery of cheesy comedy delivery in the role of veteran chorus girl Sassy.
The story itself is a bit of a jumble. There’s problems with a sleazy producer (played by Larry Lukasavage) There’s a budding romance between a chorus girl named Susie (played by Jenny Kosek) and a charmingly wholesome dance captain (Teddi Jules Gardener) named Dick. (And would you believe that his name is used a number of times for wordplay humor? Part of Gutzman’s charm lies in going for easy jokes. They CAN get a bit repetitious.) Gutzman ties together so many elements that the central zombie conflict feels a bit like a gimmick. The script is tolerable as a well-balanced musical, but it misses a great opportunity for something more dynamic.
Horror is one of the more popular genres of fiction in ANY format. Horror fans love parody. People who might not normally think to go to a live stage play are GOING to want to go to a show like this. And they’re going to be disappointed. Gutzman’s script sells the zombie element short. The premise of maintaining a zombie leading lady in a Broadway show has lots of potential, particularly as it might not always be all that clear who she might have been in contact with. Cast and crew alike would have to watch each other very, very closely to make sure no one else might have gotten turned into a zombie or they themselves might unwittingly become the next victim. This and other horror elements are only given occasional time onstage. Gutzman trying to teach zombie-Waide to sing onstage is a bit fun...reminiscent of Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as Frankenstein and The Monster singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein.
One of the best moments in the entire play has Gardener, Neufang and Waide onstage trying to make it through a rehearsal of a single scene. Waide’s zombie grunts. Gardener’s leading male can’t remember any lines and the recently-infected actor played by Neufang is struggling to keep it together. Neufang’s clever balance between poised stage actor and infected zombie about to go full Romero-zombie at any time is a great deal of fun. Too bad more of the rest of the script doesn’t play clever games with the zombie horror. The right talent is clearly assembled for a proper comedy horror show. Composer/Musical Director Chris Holoyda has done great work with musical horror including Lobotomy the Musical and Flesh Trade. This could have been another great locally-written musical/horror crossover for the small stage. Gutzman does a solid job of putting together a campy musical, but it could have been much more.
Boulevard Theatre’s Zombies on Broadway runs through June 30th on 127 E. Wells Street. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.
A very earthy indie Riverwest feel greets audiences on the walk through a curtain of plastic into 53212 Presents’ I’m a Father Under Construction. Beautiful live acoustic alt-pop plays as the sound of traffic on Center Street rolls in from just outside the second floor space above Company Brewing on Center Street. Nerissa Eichinger’s set is a stylized classic blueprint of the front of a residential home with picket fencing covering the stage floor and scenic flats which are rolled around in the course of the show.
Kirk R. Thomsen directs a concise, little seven-part exploration into fatherhood featuring dance theatre, drama, poetry and more. The opening dance piece gives the show its title. Conceived by Posy Knight, the piece represents some of the show’s best abstract work. Ida Lucchesi, Lindsay Stevens and Joelle Worm render a struggle amidst a deep soundscape that includes spoken word from various voices and echoes of the distinctive eloquence of Barack Obama speaking of fatherhood. The abstract multi-person movement work is some of the more beautiful stuff on the program.
The show gets a bit more directly narrative in a trilogy of “Family Life” pieces which include an imaginary ball thrown around between father and kids. Sounds of the construction which echo the title take the form of power drills, hammers and saws that don’t seem to be organized in any particular way. (There’s almost an abstract kind of confusion in the sound effects. This is what it’s like to be a father, though: it’s a lot of work and it can feel like you don’t have a goddamned clue as to what you’re doing. Just keeping sawing and drilling and pounding-in the nails and you’ll be fine..the important thing is that you’re actually there and doing something. you’ll figure it out as you work...) One of the more starkly simple and hauntingly dark pieces in the show is the “Family Life II” between Thomsen and Ben Ludwig. The two engage in admirably complex relations which swiftly shift in an elegantly primal, little moment between two men in a public men’s room.
Ludwig brings the show to a bit of a crescendo with “Legacy,” a piece featuring choreography by Zach Schorsch. There’s a genuine struggle to find identity and gender identity as Ludwig engages in an energetic and aggressive pseudo-duet with a mannequin and number of feather boas. The piece is fairly simple, but Ludwig’s subtle magnetism does an elegant job of selling the gravity of the drama.
The concept of fatherhood is as dizzyingly complex as it is vague. The show doesn’t attempt any kind of a comprehensive dissection of the topic. This works to the overall advantage of the show. There’s so much interpretive artistic abstraction in form and movement that a more explicitly-rendered analysis of fatherhood would suffer. Instead, the show dreamily coasts through certain feelings of universal dad-like Americana. The show’s traditionally American father abstraction is just ambiguous enough to draw-in audiences to a personal connection with the concept of “dad.” Just about any open heart can connect with it regardless of personal history. That’s the beauty in this kind of abstraction.
I wasn’t exactly “fathered” by a dad. I’m not really a traditional dad to my daughters either...not in the cliche way anyway. The show managed to resonate with me on a personal level anyway. With vaguely dad-like notions playing across the stage, the show draws on vague notions that coax vivid memories in a shadowy space beyond the plastic curtain above a bar in Riverwest.
53212 Presents’ I’m a Father Under Construction runs through June 29th at Grapefruit Studios above Company Brewing on 735 E. Center St. For more information, visit 53212 Presents online.
I love a locally-written show. If Milwaukee’s theatre scene is going to expand and evolve, it’s really going to need to produce more original stuff. Even if it’s not great, a locally-written show is fresh. Fresh goes a long way when it is far easier to go with something safe and established. This month, Milwaukee Entertainment Group stages a clever, deceptively light comedy with Andrew Peterson’s Not Dead Yet. On the surface, it’s a weird, screwball comedy that feels like a comfortable fusion between Mel Brooks and the Zucker Brothers. Weird jokes are packed around the edges of a comedy with clever, little pop cultural references and odd bits of visual humor cuddling in the margins of the action. On a deeper level, all of the weirdness is lovingly constructed around a rather sophisticated, little satirical look at fascism and the madness of megalomania. (So...y'know...very topical given the current political climate here in the US.) Directed by Robert A. Zimmerman, a small ensemble agilely weaves the right kind of comic fusion for a really satisfying screwball political satire.
Dennis Lewis is dramatically poised as Cameron James Pinchurst III--a film director who produced the top three highest-grossing films of all time including The Abuse and Iceberg Shmiceberg. He’s clearly a spoof of legendary Hollywood egotist James Cameron. The script features clear references to Cameron’s movies The Abyss, Aliens and probably quite a few more. The show starts on the main floor where everyone in the audience is handed an NDA with incredibly fine print which signs away all rights directly to the filmmaker. Lewis’ comic poise as a Hollywood egotist serves as a central focal point for the entire comedy.
The presentation in the basement is intended to be a table reading of a new script for Pinchurst. In a cozy spoof of a murder-mystery show, things start going wrong and people start to drop dead. Involved in the reading are a group of actors who couldn’t escape Pinchhurst’s influence.
Amber Regan is suitably nihilistic as the hard-drinking Bernice Is-not-my-name. Ms. Is-not-my-name is a veteran/victim of an evidently long line of Pinchurst’s previous productions.
Zach Sharrock plays the aggressively reluctant actor Adolf Ebola. Adolf gradually gets drawn-into the immense gravity of an inescapable project, invariably becoming every bit as dedicated to it as everyone else. Sharrock's is probably the closest to the heart of the satire. Ebola suffers from s weird mutation of Stockholm syndrome as he is forced to join the group and engage in cheerleading for fear of being forced into the punishment of yet another project with Pinchurst later-on. Everyone involved must participate or be punished...with contractually-obligated future projects. The NDAs that the audience signs suggest that everyone in the theatre is suffering from the same conditions at the hands of the mad James Cameron-like Hollywood egotist.
I loved Brittany Curran as the cheerful Susie Ditz--heir to the Ditz Cracker fortune. Peterson’s script could easily make the character come across as some flat, comically stupid stereotype. To her credit, Curran gives Ditz many subtle layers of comic complexity. Ditz isn’t stupid...she’s just so completely lost in her own world that she doesn’t totally connect-up with the world around her. Curran gives Ditz a lot of clever comic affectations that suggest a very deep character beyond the script. It’s a really endearing performance.
Chris Goode stands at the helm of the production in the role of Pinchurst’s assistant E. Orr Block. Goode’s cheerful fidelity in the role is animated by a genuine concern for the wellbeing of his lord and master Pinchurst. The love at the heart of Goode’s performance keeps the character from being the kind of weak character toadies and lackeys so often are.
One by one, various characters die-off...evidently at the hands of Pinchhurst’s obsessive jilted lover Ginger Katz. Cara Johnston vamps it up as the comically sexy femme fatale. Katz’ psychotic kitty fursona is played for laughs. The human kitty jokes end up forming some of the weaker humor in the script, but Johnston does such a good job of selling it that it actually becomes funny. Johnston has great comic instincts which came to light opening night in her ancillary role as Adolf’s girlfriend “Tweets.” There was an evidently accidental incident involving bubble gum that would be really difficult to repeat. Johnston's smart comic instincts made it work. Some of the best stuff in a show like this can’t be scripted. Johnston and Curran give this production some impressive life around the edges of a largely sharp satirical script.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s Not Dead Yet runs through June 22nd at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.