Friday, March 2, 2012

REVIEW: Silence! The Musical

Review of the Saturday, February 25 performance at the 9th Theatre Space at P.S. 122, New York City.  Starring David Garrison, Jenn Harris, Stephen Bienskie, Harry Bouvy, Ashlee Dupre, Pamela Bob, Topher Nuccio, Howard Kaye, Annie Funke and Callan Bergmann.  Book by Hunter Bell.  Music and lyrics by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan.  Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli.  90 minutes, with no intermission.  Adult language, sexual situations, mock horror film violence.

Grade: A-

I suppose that in order to get the fullest, most satisfying experience at Silence! The Musical: The Unauthorized Parody of The Silence of the Lambs, one must be very familiar with the source material.  I admit that the film is one of my all time favorites.  The acting is brilliant, the cinematography artfully rendered, and the real horrors lying in what is not seen, rather than in gruesome, vivid killings.  Its perfection (and its frequent near brushes with melodrama) make it ripe for parody.  As good as the film is, so too, is the outrageously funny and relentlessly spot-on spoof as written by Hunter Bell (book) and Jon and Al Kaplan (music and lyrics).

Clocking in at just 90 minutes that seem like about half that, the show hits all of the iconic moments and plot highlights from the film, and even manages to expand - irreverently - on the "motivations and inner psyches" of the characters.  Fans of the film will delight at the riotous opening moments which duplicates the run through the woods taken by Clarice Starling/Jodie Foster.  They will howl with knowing laughter at the recreation of Starling/Foster's walk down the hall of the insane asylum - ALL of it, including the, um, climax of inmate Miggs.  Stunned silence, then giggles, then outright screams of delight greeted the scene where the FBI agents are gathered around the bagged body of Buffalo Bill's first victim.  Even the small details - the touch of fingers between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter, the creepy reflections of the adversaries in the prison glass, the grotesques head in the jar are all here, too.  The more tense moments in the film are a laugh riot  here - a close up on the elevator meter, the dead cop arranged to look like a moth, the "face" mask disguise.  And like the best parodies do, it exploits and expands upon the most ridiculous moments - Clarice talks to the ghost of her father here; the single line, "It is smart to say the victim's name frequently.  It makes her more human." and the victim's name, Catherine, ends up being almost the entirety of the lyrics to a song.  And then there is the gross out line of the film, "I can smell your cunt" has been turned into...wait for it... a DREAM BALLET!

Fans of theatre itself will also enjoy the frequent references to Broadway musicals, bridging the gap between film and stage with a wink and broad smile.  The very first scene has a chorus of lambs, singing about what the lambs mean to the story (and much better than the film does, I might add) a la "The Naming of Cats" from Cats.  Those same lambs are back up dancers to Clarice a la Chicago and Fosse.  Clarise even gets to do the "Cassie stretch" a la A Chorus Line.  Only once do things get taken a bit too far.  That is when Clarice's FBI school friend, Ardelia goes into a production number called "It's Me!" where she expresses her lesbian feelings for Clarice.  Expanding this small role from the film is humorous, but not the point where it becomes unrecognizable from the source material.  I should note that the number is clearly written to be sung in the style of a Lillias White-type diva, but at the performance I saw, the role was played by understudy Pamela Bob, instead of Deidre Goodwin. Ms. Bob is the antithesis of such a diva.  She played the role very well otherwise, and is quite funny.

With the exception of the actors who play Clarice and Hannibal, the rest of the cast plays several roles, sometimes within the same thing.  And what makes this really work so well is that the entire company, no matter how many characters they play, are spot on send ups of their film counterparts.  Add to that the fact that the entire company is on the same page and level of parody (credit must go equally to the writers, director and cast for this).  This combination, along with the very apparent fact that they are having a great time doing the show, is what takes Silence! to its blissful heights.  Topher Nuccio, Howard Kaye and Annie Funke (who plays both the stiff, self-righteous senator and the kidnapping victim, the senator's daughter, Catherine) are terrific.  Special note must be made of "Dream Hannibal" and "Dream Clarice", Callan Bergmann and Ashlee Dupre, respectively.  Both are amazing dancers, who manage to show off some serious skills and still manage to send up such dancing in musicals.  That they can do without cracking up - their big number and several reprises is "If I Could Smell Her Cunt" - is to their credit entirely.

As pompous Dr. Chilton, who finally gets his comeuppance in the end, Harry Bouvy is very funny, overplaying the arrogance and selfishness with glee.  And Stephen Bienske is an absolute  SCREAM as "Buffalo Bill" and gets some of the night's heartiest laughs, especially during the "Put the Lotion in the Basket" duet with his victim, and when he, um, recreates the, um, "tuck" moment, much to the delight of the audience.

David Garrison has done an amazing job at getting at the highlights of Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning performance.  He doesn't - wisely - do an impression of Sir Hopkins, but rather brings his Hanibal to life with hints and an effective cadence to his delivery.  What a presence - creepy, delightfully funny and with a great singing voice to boot!   And as Clarice, Jenn Harris turns in a career-making performance.  Her hang dog, serious face, and sad vacant eyes are in direct opposition to the intensity of Foster, which brilliantly works with the the two or three dead on traits Harris has picked from Foster's performance.  Namely, the affected lisp and Southern twang employed by Ms. Foster are amplified exponentially by Ms. Harris.  And there is the almost constant unflappable straight face that gave Foster a riveting intensity, makes Harris even funnier as she never flinches no matter what chaos and mayhem are going on around her.  Did I mention that Ms. Harris is also a triple threat?  She is a wonderful actor, sings like an bird and dances with best of them - boy, is she limber!  It is hard to imagine Silence! without her.

The small, slightly run down atmosphere of the theatre space, along with the moody lighting by Jeff Croiter, is perfect for this moody, low-budget thrill ride.  Tony winner Scott Pask's set design is also perfect - 4 movable screens and some set pieces bring an entire cinematic masterpiece to life, reminding us without setting anything in stone.  David Kaley's costumes are part homage to the film and part tongue-in-cheek fun.  I may never look at tube socks and spray can lids the same way again.

Director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli has created a living tribute to a classic American film, respecting it always and lovingly sending it up.  The pace is non-stop - you find yourself holding your breath trying not to laugh at the visual and aural assault on your senses.  He knows how to guide his cast in the language of the film, of specific Broadway styles, and in just how far to go without going too far.  Kudos to this relative newcomer to direction.  (I can't wait to see what he has done with the choreography of Newsies!)

Finally, despite how this will sound, the score (by Jon and Al Kaplan) really fits the show as you are watching it.  It is truly funny from start to finish, with each number topping the last.  But it is the kind of thing you really wouldn't listen to outside the context of the moments in the show.  The tunes are catchy and campy, but none of them stick with you.  I couldn't hum you a single tune from it if my life depended upon it.  But, and I mean this most sincerely, the score really fits the piece in a way that many musical scores hope for but don't achieve.

What sticks with you are the same moments that captivated you when you watched the film.  The difference now, is I will laugh when Miggs says he can smell Clarice, grin at the melodrama of the lotion in the basket, and even snicker at the tense green light/night goggles chase scene.  The best parodies make you appreciate the source material and the parody itself.  And Silence! is pretty close to being that great.

(Photos by Carol Rosegg)

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