BWW Review: THE ZOMBIES OF PENZANCE Breathes New Life and Steals Hearts at The Marcelle
As the story goes in Gilbert & Sullivan's 1879 operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, Frederic the pirate has just been released from his indenture to a comical band of soft-hearted pirates when he meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley, and falls in love. When the other pirates forcefully claim Mabel's sisters as their wives, Major-General upsets their plan with a well-crafted fib-that he (just like the whole lot of them) is an orphan. A bond is formed, but while the tale unravels, shenanigans result, and Frederic is torn between love and duty until it's pointed out that these pirates are merely noblemen gone wrong, resulting in Major-General blessing the marriages of all his daughters.
As the story also goes, in 2013, New Line Theatre's Artistic Director Scott Miller made an extraordinary discovery: the never-seen-before draft manuscripts for The Pirates of Penzance, which actually-believe it or not-originated as The Zombies of Penzance. When found "in the second sub-basement of Judson Memorial Church in New York, hidden beneath some moldy band parts from Rockabye Hamlet and Shogun the Musical," Miller naturally went right to work "reconstructing the bizarre original show as its creators intended," the program notes explain. Wait. What?!
Miller partnered with composer and orchestrator John Gerdes to reconstruct this amazing discovery, as the story continues, filling in gaps based on other Gilbert & Sullivan shows and drafts, all so they could bring this highly theatrical world premiere of a raucous, redesigned The Zombies of Penzance to us as the inaugural show of New Line's 28th season!
Are you still with me? Can you even imagine what it means to be a freshly-made zombie? Frederic (Sean Michael) can, as that's his plight in this adaptation. Having just been zombified, Frederic and his walking-dead cohort assure us in an earnest welcome that brains are an acquired taste. "Like haggis!" And then, Mabel (Melissa Felps), who is very much alive, single, and ready to mingle, takes pity on poor Frederic, crooning, "Eat any heart, eat mine!" We are then swept away in a wonderful whirlwind of apocalyptic delight that is both fresh and familiar. Major-General Stanley (Zachary Allen Farmer), in this one, is a zombie hunter whose fib is threefold: he isn't actually a freshly-made zombie, he never even was a zombie(!), and to top it all off, he doesn't even like zombies. Similarly torn between love and duty, this Frederic must make the choices that lead to the ultimate zombie wedding feast for all the Stanley daughters.
With smart dialogue, clever lyrics, and rapid-fire jabs at conservative Christianity, I dare you to keep up with the pace here. This show is wholly entertaining, starting with the first overture notes from The New Line Band and continuing until the very last hysterical twist as the lights go dim at the end. This wild, wonderful adaptation closely mimics the original, only this version is darker, edgier, weirder, and paradoxically funnier. Plus, there are dancing zombies!
Sarah Porter's costumes are fun and the ferocious makeup on these loveable flesh-eating monstrosities is fab. Every single singing voice is practiced and skilled, particularly Felps as Mabel, although the entire company deserves kudos for their sumptuous harmonies. It's no coincidence that they sound like a church choir at times, and it's no accident that the pointed irreverence feels like a wicked, delicious delicacy. "Good Christian Girls" and "From Genesis to Revelation" in particular are sweet treats, but other notable moments are the apropos tribute to George Romero and a fantastically funny zombie kickline, which had the audience in stitches.
The cast makes great use of space, playing into the aisles, and while this little gem stays true to the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan, it does not rely as much on physical comedy as it does smart, sharp writing. It's charming. It's cheeky. It's a super fun pre-Halloween show for those looking to laugh, or for anyone who enjoys The Pirates of Penzance. Trust me on this one. Gilbert and Sullivan would be amused.