BWW Reviews: Kensington Arts' NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the musical) Shows Promise Despite Challenges
I’m a junkie for world premiere musicals so when Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT) announced it would be premiering Signature Theatre favorites Matt Conner (Music and Lyrics) and Stephen Gregory Smith’s (Book, Lyrics, Direction) novel take on B horror film Night of the Living Dead, I decided I needed to check it out. Conceptually, Conner and Smith are on to something although additional refinement of the book, music, and lyrics is very much necessary if this show is to have a future life. The small KAT cast delivers some fine performances in this premiere. The production also makes good use of minimal (but in most cases, solid) production design elements despite some sound problems in the performance I witnessed.
Lovers of the horror film genre are likely to have some affinity for this musical’s source material although this piece offers a different perspective on the unexpected events on that dark night. Stephen Gregory Smith chooses to focus much less on those zombies that ruthlessly invade a town in Western Pennsylvania and more on the emotional experience of those survivors who retreat to the inside of an old farmhouse to protect themselves from further atrocities. This psychological/sociological approach offers fewer spine-tingling events for the theatregoer to witness, but it does reveal some compelling inner truths about human nature in the face of adversity or quick changes to fate, which is far more interesting (to me, at least). At the same time, there’s a lack of urgency and intensity in the book/direction as it currently exists. The idea that this horrific event happened on what had simply been an ordinary day is prevalent in much of the show, as is the idea that fate can change in an instant. Though these are certainly good central thematic elements from which to build, they are unfortunately repeated so many times in songs/dialogue to the point where an audience member might feel like they are being hit over the head with a single message and, at some point want to say “Ok, I get it…let’s move on.”
Conner’s score is largely of the pop-rock genre that is so popular in contemporary American musical theatre. Currently, the “Broadcast” songs are the most interesting from a music perspective and “What You Say” (a song that the lovers Tom and Judy sing shortly before they both meet their end) has a very strong melody. While I appreciate Conner’s effort to structure nearly all of the songs in a similar style (it does provide cohesion), this can become monotonous at times when only two keyboards and drums comprise the orchestra. Although Chris Youstra’s orchestrations sound very good and are played quite well by the small orchestra under the direction of Leah Kocsis, future productions might rely on a more complex set of orchestrations to bring out the best of Conner’s music.
Performance-wise, several cast members have standout moments under the direction of writer Stephen Gregory Smith and producer Jenna Ballard. Ben Gibson (as Harry, a rather angry father of a young child who has been injured) delivers fine vocals in all of his numbers and Stephen Hock (Tom) and Leslie Vincent (Judy) have standout vocal performances in their aforementioned duet. Karissa Swanigan gives the most nuanced and compelling, yet varied, acting performance as the distraught Barbra who is reeling from the loss of a family member although she’s hesitant to accept it. All cast members seem to very much understand the material they have been given and most prove capable of not crossing back and forth across the line of serious drama/camp too many times.
I wish Conner and Smith well as they seek to build upon this solid starting point. KAT should also be commended for taking on this new musical. It’s rare that a community theatre takes on a work that’s not “tried and true” especially in this economic climate, but it should absolutely be applauded for providing a platform for emerging new musical theatre writing talent to experiment.