Every so often a show comes along that attracts audiences who’d never ordinarily set foot inside a legitimate theater, let alone for a musical, heaven forbid. Rare examples of these surprise cult hits include Spamalot, which drew in Monty Python fans in droves; Joe’s Garage, which had Frank Zappa fans lined up around the corner at Open Fist; and now Re-Animator™-The Musical, which opened in February for a six-week run at the Steve Allen Theatre and has been packing them in since then.


Maybe it’s the show’s sci-fi theme, or perhaps it’s Re-Animator’s camp factor, both of which have made The Rocky Horror Show, The Toxic Avenger: The Musical, and Evil Dead: The Musical cult favorites. Then again, it may have something to do with the “splash zone,” the first four or so rows of seats where audience members are guaranteed to get anywhere from dampened to soaked with artificial blood (more about that later).

Whatever the reason for its smash success, Re-Animator™-The Musical has become L.A.’s biggest cult hit of the year, and a funner, campier, more outrageous ride you’re unlikely to have anytime soon, that is unless you become one of the show’s many repeat visitors.

Based on the 1985 science fiction horror movie Re-Animator, which itself came from the H. P. Lovecraft story Herbert West—Reanimator, Re-Animator™-The Musical tells the scarylicious tale of experiments in The Resuscitation Of The Dead.

Our handsome, intrepid hero is Dr. Dan Cain (Chris L. McKenna), whom we first see attempting in vain to revive a patient long past the eight to ten minutes he has before brain death sets in. Despite the musical pleas of the attending medical staff (“She’s dead, Dan/Get it through your head, Dan”), the good doctor refuses to give up until he is literally pulled from the cadaver who won’t come back to life.

Not surprisingly, considering Dan’s matinee idol good looks and sculpted physique, our hero has a gorgeous blonde fiancée Meg (Rachel Avery), who just happens to be the daughter of Dean Halsey (Harry S. Murphy), Dean of the Miskatonic Medical School, i.e. Dan’s boss. While Meg dreams of the day she and her beau can be wed to storybook perfection, Dan just wants to Meg to move in with him, something which she won’t do without a ring on her finger.

As long as Dan has the apartment all to himself, he rents out his basement to bespectacled medical researcher Herbert West (Graham Skipper), who happens coincidentally to have developed an iridescent green reagent which, when injected into the recently deceased, shocks the brain into a state of “re-animation,” not quite normal life, but the next best thing as far as Herbert is concerned.

When Dan discovers that Herbert has killed and then re-animated his pet cat Rufus, the studly doctor realizes that his nerdy housemate may just have discovered the very secret of life extension he himself has been wishing and hoping to find. Before long, the pair are down in the morgue in search of just the right cadaver to bring back to life.

Every ointment (or reagent in this case) has its fly, and Herbert’s is his nemesis Dr. Hill (Jesse Merlin), an unscrupulous, plagiaristic maniac who will do anything in his power to claim credit for Herbert’s discovery—and that means anything, if you get my drift.

Re-Animator™-The Musical has been brought to musical comedy life by Stuart Gordon, who directed both movie and musical; by book writers Dennis Paoli, Gordon, and William J. Norris, authors of the 1985 screenplay; and by composer/lyricist Mark Nutter, some of whose songs have been inspired by Richard Band’s movie score, while others owe a greater debt to Gilbert & Sullivan with their similarly clever rhymes. (“What’s the point of staying? It smells like she’s decaying” and “His psychosis gives me chills/He cannot love, he only kills” are two wittily creepy examples.)

While I’m told the film is played for maximum shock and horror value, performances in Re-Animator™-The Musical are for the most part tongue-in-cheek. McKenna’s stalwart good guy and Avery’s sweet-and-sexy girl next door are played the most realistically of the bunch (and quite terrifically at that), making for a sympathetic pair of lovers amidst the mayhem that surrounds them. Less true-to-life and all the more entertaining for being so are Skipper’s bug-eyed Herbert, Merlin’s deranged Dr. Hill, and (once he’s been re-animated) Murphy’s crazed zombie of a dead Dean. Marlon Grace gets laughs too as a hefty hospital security guard who has better things to do than guarding security (“I’ll take care of it … right after my break”). Completing the cast as doctors, directors, policemen, and corpses are Mark Beltzman, Cynthia Carle, Brian Gillespie, and Liesel Hanson, all first-rate. Merlin’s trained baritone makes him by far the vocal standout.

As for the gore, there is plenty of it, though it’s the sort more likely to provoke laughs than shrieks. Someone’s eyes fall out, another character gets ripped apart limb from limb, skulls are opened with bone saws and brains removed, and best of the bunch, a decapitation and double re-animation allow the deceased character to remain a major player, operatic pipes intact. As for folks in the first few rows, don’t let Act One fool you or let the production’s complimentary trash bags give you a sense of security. When fake blood gets shot out of an intestinal hose near the end of Act Two, the splashing and splattering goes on and on and on (and people keep coming back for more).

Musical director/arranger Peter Adams plays live synthesizer to prerecorded tracks, making for just the right musical accompaniment. Cynthia Carle’s inventive choreography is never more so than when re-animated zombies form A Chorus Line.

Laura Fine Hawkes’ scenic design is simple in the extreme, but does the trick. Jeff Rack gets big thumbs up for an impressive bunch of ingenious props. Costumes by Joe Kucharski are imaginative treats, especially those designed for characters minus heads or with other severed body parts. Jeff Ravitz’s lighting design adds to the show’s creepy/funny moods as does Adams’ sound design. Biggest design kudos go to special effects masters Tony Doublin, John Naulin, John Buechler, Tom Devlin, and Greg McDougall. Re-Animator™-The Musical is produced by Dean Schramm and Gordon. Joe Begos is stage manager, Mike Lemek assistant stage manager, and Steve Pope technical director.

Not being a particular fan of the splatter flick genre, I took rather longer than most L.A. reviewers to catch Re-Animator™-The Musical. I ought not to have hesitated so many months. I had a rollicking good time from start to finish (and stayed dry by avoiding those floor-level seats). Even if the idea of gushing blood and severed limbs makes you want to hurl, you’ll be laughing so hard at Re-Animator™-The Musical, a barf bag will be the furthest thing from your mind.

Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Through August 14. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8:00. Additional performances Fridays at Midnight and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. Reservations: 800 595-4849

–Steven Stanley
July 10, 2011
Photos: Thomas Hargis

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