‘NightoftheLivingDead (the musical) at Kensington Arts Theatre by Joel Markowitz


You have to tip your hat to the folks at Kensington Arts Center (KAT) for supporting and hosting the World Premiere of NightoftheLivingDead (the musical), the musicalized and new interpretation of the scary-as-hell George Romero horror film cult classic, with a score by Matt Conner (Nevermore, The Hollow, and Crossing), and lyrics by Mr. Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. Smith also wrote the book. Christopher Youstra provided the excellent orchestrations which are ably performed by Musical Director and keyboardist Leah R.S. Kocsis, Keyboardist J. Michael d’Havilland, and drummer Thaddeus Achey.

Suzanna Todd (Helen), Karissa Swanigan (Barbara) look on as RaMond Thomas (Ben) prepares to fight.Photo by Greg Dohler/The Gazette.

KAT’s production is creepy, has a hard-working cast and in 68 minutes it packs a wallop or should I say many loud thumps and explosions. Sound Designer Matt Rowe and Sound Board Operator Jenna Ballard have done a great job setting the tone and helping to move the story along, while John Decker and Kevin Boyce have created some very convincing special effects and excellent lighting. Kevin Boyce also created the perfect set design – simple yet effective. There are several panels that include a door, several windows, including one that is boarded up, a TV stand, some chairs and a sofa, a magazine rack, a stuffed fox, a wall phone, and a very important television. The set effectively sets the mood and allows the ‘story’ to be the center of the production  – as it should be – in this small and intimate space.

Unlike the famous film, there are no zombies on the stage. You hear them pounding on the house, you hear loud explosions, and you see a long schmeer of blood on the walls, and you learn about the poor owner of the house meeting her maker (and not in a very nice way!)

And there are no zombies on the stage munching away on these 7 characters who are waiting for help, and who are actually optimistic that they may – if they stick together – survive this nightmare. And Conner and Smith allow these characters – two couples: Helen (Susanna Todd) and Harry (Ben Gibson) and Tom (Stephen Hock) and Judy (Leslie Vincent) to sing and reflect about their marriages and regrets through their songs. Everyone, except the kid, has their vocal moments ‘in the sun.’

By making the decision to not have the Zombies make a grand appearance on the stage, this Night of the Living Dead  focuses on its characters and makes them more human and sympathetic. In the case of Ben (RaMond Thomas), the only Black man in the show and the real ‘leader’ of the group, we learn what makes him ‘tick’ in “Ben’s Song,” so that the ending of the show is even more powerful and tragic. In the most melodic songs of the show, Tom and Judy, reassure themselves that everything will be alright in “What You Say,” and Harry and Helen, whose child is ill,add some much needed diversion in their duet “Drive,” remembering all those wonderful family drives to the countryside they took. And Vincent does a wonderful job of ‘regretting’ that she never stopped to say hello to the owner of house (after driving by the house so many times before) where they now are ‘hiding’ – in the poignant “This House;This Place.”

And then there is off-the-wall Barbra (Karissa Swanigan) who needs major doses of Lithium and Lamictal. And someone please give her some candy and help her find her Johnny! In “Johnny and Me” we (somewhat) learn why Johnny isn’t there with her and some of the unspeakable things that have happened to her and him. It’s a soliloquy and cry for help that is over the top and there’s a lot – and in my opinion a little too much – shrieking – but regardless – Swanigan knocks it out of the ballpark (or should I say straight jacket?)

But it’s the kid – Karen – played by Maya Gensler – who creeped the hell out of me. She’s a younger version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. With Teddy bear in hand she slithers through the house, checks herself out in the mirror and then the mystery begins. Who is this kid? Watch carefully. I have seen Maya dance and sing up a storm at Musical Theater Center, and she was so convincing here that I forgot it was Maya up there on the stage.

Co-directors Jenna Ballard and Stephen Gregory Smith draw fine performances from Maya and the rest of her fellow cast members.Casey Kaleba does a fine job staging the fight scenes.

And despite this optimism that Conner and Smith have put into their score and lyrics, we never forget that there’s a good chance that this gang of seven could easily become some Zombie’s dinner. But for me, the most frightening thing was being reminded how little things have changed, as I experience the bombardment of racist remarks that permeate this current and ugly Presidential campaign.

I am eager to see how the show evolves after this production ends. The audience gave the hardworking cast a loud round of applause and their appreciation during their final bows. It’s always exciting to come and support a new work, especially by local actors, composers, and members of the DC area theatre community.

Come visit the farmhouse. It’s a trip worth taking, but beware…

NightoftheLivingDead (the musical) plays through November 17, 2012 at Kensington Arts Theatre – 3710 Mitchell Street in The Kensington Armory/City Hall, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office (206) 888-6643, or purchase them online.

(L to R): Composer and co-lyricist Matt Conner and lyricist and book writer Stephen Gregory Smith. Photo courtesy of The Washington City Paper.

LINKS

Meet the cast of Night of the Living Dead (the musical).

Casey Kaleba’s website.

Read Stephen Gregory Smith’s behind-the-scenes column, Letters from the Living Dead, on DC Metro Theater Arts:

Part One: Welcome to my Farmhouse.
Part Two: Finding Ben.
Part Three: Exploring the Farmhouse.
Part Four: Meet Our Cast.
Part Five: My Sweet Baby.
Part Six: We’ll Be Alright.
Part Seven: This house…this place.




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