Story: Ben enters a farm house that appears to be abandoned. Inside, though, he finds a barefoot young woman named Barbra who seems to be in shock. Eventually, Ben learns that Barbra and her brother Johnny had been attacked by “the living dead,” and that Johnny is dead. Barbra ran to the house before slipping into shock. Ben abandoned his truck, which needs fuel, and is seeking shelter in the same house.
Soon Ben learns that there are five other people there, holed up in the basement. They are Harry and Helen and their injured daughter Karen and a young couple named Tom and Judy. Karen is unconscious after being bitten by one of the attackers, something Helen feigns as a wound suffered when their car was overturned.
Tension mounts as the six adults search the home for wood to barricade themselves against the killers outside. Harry and Helen bicker constantly as Harry attempts to bully everyone to do what he says. Ben is disgusted by Harry’s cowardly behavior, while Tom and Judy seem too timid to challenge Harry’s nasty temperament. As all seek a solution to their desperate plight, they find themselves as much at war with each other as with the menace beyond.
Highlights: George Romero’s landmark 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead, a grainy black-and-white independent movie made for just $114,000 that has grossed more than $250 million since its debut, is the inspiration for a new, musical adaptation crafted by composer Matt Conner and book author Stephen Gregory Smith, who collaborated on the lyrics.
The show was workshopped in New York and then produced by a small theater in Maryland before receiving its regional premiere in a taut, intriguing production mounted by New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller. In gritty, sobering fashion director Miller guides his players across Romero’s harrowing landscape as interpreted by Conner and Smith with intriguing and satisfying results.
Other Info: Far removed from musicals that provide laughter along with catchy tunes and witty lyrics, Night of the Living Dead is, well, deadly serious stuff throughout its one act. Billed at 70 minutes, the opening-night performance ran closer to an hour and a half. That’s not a problem, though, because Miller maintains the tension and along the way elicits some splendid performances, notably by Zachary Allen Farmer and Sarah Porter.
Farmer and Porter are the show’s pillars as the harried everyman Ben and the bitterly unhappy wife Helen. As the piece’s de facto hero, Farmer instills Ben with a moral compass that alternates between compassion and courage. He freely admits he doesn’t know much about the truck he’s been driving, but he has the ‘right stuff’ to steer himself and his fellow survivors as best he can to safety. Tunes such as the appropriately titled Ben’s Song allow Farmer to carefully etch Ben’s decent personality with the sensitivity behind the lyrics.
Porter shows the grit and grim reality behind the shackles chaining Helen to her unhappy marriage with Harry. She occasionally offers an olive branch of tenderness recalling happier days, but is just as quickly rebuffed by her recalcitrant husband. Mike Dowdy is effective as the loutish Harry, who is quick to fight for his own security at everyone else’s expense.
Joseph McAnulty and Mary Beth Black are fine as the timid young couple who are more hindrance than help to Ben as they stumble along in their terror. Marcy Wiegert gets to escape from Barbra’s coiled catatonia sporadically to heighten the anxiety, such as her angst-filled recollection of what drove her to the house in the forlorn tune, Johnny & Me. Phoebe Desilets capably fills out the ensemble as the tragically affected Karen.
Conner’s music is subtle and persuasive and given a haunting performance by conductor/pianist Sue Goldford and the New Line band, which also includes cellist Daniel Dickson, violinist Nikki Glenn, percussionist Clancy Newell, Vince Clark on bass and keyboardist Joel Hackbarth.
Rob Lippert’s set and lighting design are starkly realistic, featuring a spooky basement at stage right, a set of stairs leading to an ominous bedroom on the second floor, a table and chairs pointing to an unseen kitchen at stage left and a living room in the center of most of the action.
Kerrie Mondy’s sound design is excellent, greatly enhancing the spooky effects, Alison Helmer adds precise props and the character’s late ‘60s-era wardrobes are designed by Porter and Wiegert.
Much has been said through the years about the metaphors at work in classic American horror flicks from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing and Rosemary’s Baby as well as Night of the Living Dead, whether nuclear war, the Red Scare or conformity. The key to creepy chills, though, is described in an exchange of dialogue between two of Living Dead’s characters.
“Do you think it’s communists?,” asks one about the unknown terror beyond the house’s flimsy protection. “Does it matter?,” responds the other.
Regardless, this Night of the Living Dead, even with some sketchy character portrayals provided by Smith, is absorbing food for thought, with a hearty portion of goosebumps on the side.
Musical: Night of the Living Dead
Company: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: October 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26, 31, November 1, 2
Tickets: $10-$20; contact 534-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg