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Silence! The Musical: Anything But Quiet

Few Broadway events can match the excitement of the first New York preview of a new musical that's been getting great out of town buzz. Before the Internet, shows used to be able to perform their pre-Broadway tryouts in relative obscurity, even when playing in cities as close as Boston, New Haven and Philadelphia. But nowadays, advanced word on a new musical, especially one that looks like a smash, gets spread throughout the theatre community overnight, and can result in hyped-up, energized crowds as soon as they hit New York. Ask anyone who attended the first New York previews of shows like The Producers and Hairspray.

Now Silence! The Musical proves you can generate the same kind of buzz without ever having given a performance. Although this year's Fringe production was the musical's premiere, the composing/lyric-writing team of Jon and Al Kaplan began giving away free CDs of their score (no longer free) over two years ago on a web site that also included audio clips. Links to the site were passed all over the net by theatre fans and people who just thought their friends would get a laugh from the idea of a musical version of the Oscar-winning horror film, The Silence of the Lambs. Those in the know would share their knowledge of new showtunes with titles like "If I Could Smell Her Cunt" and "Put The fing Lotion in the Basket", and the entire scheduled run of Silence! The Musical sold out before lights even went up on the first performance. This was a show with a lot of buzz and the electric atmosphere in the Lucille Lortel Theatre the night I attended was due in no small part to the power of the Internet.

Of course, living up to the buzz is another matter. Whether or not Silence! The Musical can appeal to the the type of audience that can sustain a commercial run remains to be seen, but it's safe to say that those who came in looking for a fun, mindless evening of broad parody and outrageously distasteful songs presented with a professional gloss that made the tastelessness cute got exactly what they wanted. There is good material under the sophomoric outer layer that gives it the potential to be a cult hit, but the giddy direction by Christopher Gattelli and the sublimely funny performance by Jenn Harris could be the key elements that help the show to make it as a popular hit.

Unlike many in the audience, I only saw the movie once and didn't bother to memorize it. I missed a lot of references to the film that sent the crowd into hysterics, but there's enough in Silence! The Musical for a rookie to enjoy. The plot remains about an FBI trainee (Harris) and her uneasy partnership with imprisoned cannibal/murderer Hannibal Lecter (Paul Kandel), who helps her capture a serial killer who has a preference for plus-sized female victims. Hunter Bell's book plays like a solid sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, with humor that can be divided into three categories: jokes that spoof the film, jokes that come from translating the material into the Broadway vernacular (Streisand jokes and Fosse visuals), and jokes that play off the fact that certain scenes must be recreated on a frugal, Fringe Festival budget. Set designer Scott Pask and costume designer David Kaley get so much out of so little that more money to work with could eliminate a lot of the fun.

Although the Kaplans have come up with a lively collection of catchy tunes, the score is at its best when the lyrics are at their most scatological. Words that some may find objectionable are used selectively and intelligently for the best comic punch. The previously mentioned "If I Could Smell Her Cunt", the first solo for Lecter, is a classic example of a character introduction song, expressing the lonely prisoner's desire for the slightest bit of connection with another human being. When a pre-op transsexual serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Stephen Bienskie) admires his own female appearance, he sings of a sex act he'd like to do to himself with a lyric continually repeating the word in a variety of contexts. It's not the word that's funny, it's the complexity of its repetition.

Gattelli's staging and choreography is a raucous clash of styles: vaudeville shtick, misplaced classical ballet, drag show camp and celebrity impersonation collide at breakneck speed in a decidedly unsentimental ninety minutes. There are especially enjoyable performances from Kandel, as the menacing convict, Bienskie, as the flamboyant transsexual killer and the always sizzling Dierdre Goodwin, who has very little to do until a big song-and-dance about how she's had so little to do up until then.

But the center of attention is nearly always Jenn Harris. Just emerging as a notable theatre comic (her brief appearance at the end of Modern Orthodox completely stole that mundane play from her more famous co-stars) she gives the type of performance that screams out "star in the making". More than just impersonating Jodie Foster, who originated her role in the film, she intelligently overplays her underplaying. As a quiet, serious-mind young woman with a pronounced lisp, the joke of the performance is how inappropriate her character is to be the star of a musical. When she struts around like Chita Rivera in a hot Fosse-ish dance number, she's still the quiet, serious-minded, lisping heroine, suddenly empowered with a Broadway belt that, if not exactly artful, is still loud and clear.

There is certainly an audience that will have a great time at Silence! The Musical. Just how large an audience it is remains to be seen. But no doubt there is a much larger audience that would be thrilled to be enjoying the performances of Jenn Harris for many years to come.

Photo by Ben Strothmann: Paul Kandel, Jeff Hiller and Jenn Harris


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From This Author Michael Dale