Death is a Cabaret Ol’ Chum—A Graveyard Cabaret, or: When the dead come alive at the Laurel Hill Cemetery with REV Theatre Company
Death, dying, and the supernatural have fascinated the public around the world, especially when visiting cemeteries. “How many years do we really have?” may be the question on many peoples’ minds when attending REV Theatre Company’s haunting show.
Their Graveyard Cabaret presents more than melodrama and beautiful songs in a spectacular environment in the middle of the night. In the Middle Ages, people were reminded of death in many church yard plays. REV Theatre Company (REV) builds on this tradition with an entertaining musical program that also serves as a reminder of the brevity of life.
Since 2012, REV has built a cult-like following over the years in their annual productions at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia’s most prestigious resting place for the rich, the famous, and the well connected, with “marble and granite funerary monuments.”
Having seen some of their engaging productions, I drove up to the 74 acre Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia’s East Falls section, overlooking the Schuylkill River—one of America’s most talked about cemeteries, built between 1836 and 1839. Tourists are told that “Laurel Hill contains more than 33,000 monuments and more than 11,000 family lots.”
The cemetery is so large and surrounded by high walls that I missed it at first. However, thanks to my trusted GPS, I eventually found the brightly lit entrance, reminiscent of a castle where, behind the moat and the drawbridge, all the knights, all the ladies, and most members of Philadelphia’s ruling class lie six feet underground—including famous Revolutionary War figures; a hero of the Battle of Princeton; a signer of the Declaration of Independence; business tycoons; U.S. Congressmen; mayors of Philadelphia—even Union Army and Confederate Army generals, resting peacefully, no longer killing each other.
To cheer up the nightly visitors, all guests are greeted by Rosey Hay, REV’s Producing Artistic – co-director and director of the show – who offers you a wide range of complimentary cocktails. I guess, the more squeamish would need them. After all, there’s nobody at that famous graveyard at night but the actors, the theatre fans, and Emma Stern, Director of Programs at the cemetery which, as she confided, only takes 35 bodies a year as all the other plots are occupied. So you better hurry!
I walked into the night, following the little solar lights, turned to the right, up the hill, passing hundreds of beautiful old gravestones, commemorating important women from Philadelphia, including journalist and magazine publisher Louisa Knapp Curtis; inventor Martha Coston; poet Sarah Josepha Hale; and plant chemist Helen Abbott Michael.
Some of the biggest looking stones and obelisks were erected by powerbrokers: shipbuilders; directors of the U.S. Mint; financiers; U.S. Attorney Generals; and members of the richest families in the city of brotherly love. I failed to ask whether Laurel Hill Cemetery has a pauper section.
Eventually, I stumbled onto a group of shadows and silhouettes, sitting quietly on their folding chairs or on their blankets between headstones, reminding us of those who contributed to the creativity of Philadelphia, including playwrights like George Henry Boker and Robert Montgomery Bird; opera singers; architects; inventors; photographers; philanthropists; publishers; poets; editors; and writers.
Suddenly, we heard strange noises and saw figures moving around in the dark. Slowly, three ghosts, dressed in flamboyant outfits of mourning that only theatre people can create, came into focus. Michelle Pauls looked like Miss Havisham, the wealthy spinster from Great Expectations, who occupies her ruined mansion—”the witch of the place,” as Charles Dickens described her. The way Pauls moved around the gravestones, it looked as if she had just jumped from the grave of Great Expectations, wearing a most elaborate, extravagant, and over-the-top wedding dress.
Apparently, this Havisham-like character was so upset about having been jilted on her wedding day that she dyed her spectacular wedding dress black. To top if all off, she wore a black hat the size of a large carriage wheel, bigger than any hat at Ascot, making it impossible for any gentleman or ruffian to kiss her cheeks. Emerging from a cloud of fog, the multi-talented Pauls moved around like a film star in one of the early melodramas—an exquisite treat for lovers of old films and the macabre.
Soon her adopted daughter, Estella (played beautifully by the young Felicia Kalani Anderton, who can switch from the innocent voice of a little girl to an erotic, murderous seductress), came into view. Dressed with a gigantic vertical hat that looked like the embroidered silken mattress of a rich baby’s bassinet, on top of her virginal, white wedding dress—the pride of Miss Havisham—she enticed and lured the audience into her realm, while scaring them away at the same time.
The star of the Graveyard Cabaret, Rudy Caporaso, conceived, created, choreographed, and costumed the whole show. He looked like Count Dracula in drag and acted like Mr. Jaggers, Miss Havisham’s ambiguous lawyer. His voice woke up the dead at Laurel Hill Cemetery—the corpses of the opulent, the powerful, and the beautiful of days gone by. I almost saw the skeletons rise from their graves to watch him jump up on a mausoleum and, like Freddie Mercury, whip all of us into a frenzy with an amazing graveyard voice.
The Graveyard Cabaret team dug up as many old bones as they could find in the musical memorial park by selecting the 20 best out of hundreds of songs that deal with murder, death, and dying, including these great songs:
“Cemetery Blues“ (their opening piece, here sung by Bessie Smith in 1923); “Miss Otis Regrets” (one of the most wickedly entertaining songs, sung with great elegance, here with Ella Fitzgerald); “Dance While The Sky Crashes Down“ (another example of songs that help listeners to let go of their angst and move forward, here sung by Jason Webley); “The Sailor’s Wife“ (going back to days when many men never returned from fishing or working on ships that sank, performed here by Birdeatsbaby, a British Dark Cabaret group); “St. James Infirmary“ (sung here by Louis Armstrong); and “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair“ (sung by Bessie Smith in 1927).
Rob Borchert musically directed the Graveyard Cabaret with songs as old and as gruesome as Victorian ballads and as contemporary as “I can’t decide” by the Scissor Sisters, whose song came with a menacing undercurrent that sent chills down our spines:
I can’t decide
Whether you should live or die [. . .]
My heart feels dead inside
It’s cold and hard and petrified
Lock the doors and close the blinds
We’re going for a ride [. . .]
Just when I thought that the funereal roller-coaster that made us wonder whether we were ghosts, skeletons, or spectators of an entertaining, bone-chilling show was over, Rudy Caporaso slowly walked into the audience like a stripper at a seedy night club and gave me a lap-dance so gruesome that I heard myself shriek, “Oh my God!” The more vulgar the lap dance with Death, the more I found myself yowling, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”—to the laughter of the audience. A year later, I am still nightmaring when I think of that hilarious scene at the cemetery.
The show ended with all three theater artists bringing us back into reality with the most upbeat number after all the doomsday songs, “Enjoy Yourself” (here in the 1996 movie Everyone Says I Love You by Woody Allen)—a most uplifting tune, sung with great joy and with many of us humming along in the presence of over 30,000 dead at the Laurel Hill Cemetery:
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
I stumbled out of the Cemetery into the dark, still shocked, got into my car, and found myself whistling bits of “Circus Apocalypse,” one of the haunting songs of the Graveyard Cabaret (here performed by Vermillion Lies):
Come down and join the circus/It’s the end of your world [. . .]
There’s no audition
To get into the show
All that we ask for/Is your immortal soul.
Graveyard Cabaret played through September 24, 2016, at Laurel Hill Cemetery – 3822 Ridge Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA.
BEST OF THE 2016 PHILADELPHIA FRINGE!