The sexually oppressed, nuclear-death-obsessed 1950s spawned countless bubblegum odes to forbidden love, teen angst, and horrible, horrible death. Morose romanticism ruled the jukebox, and lyrics like "I couldn't stop, so I swerved to the right. I'll never forget the sound that night. The cryin' tires, the bustin' glass. The painful scream that I heard last" (from "Last Kiss") or "As they pulled him from the twisted wreck, with his dying breath they heard him say, 'Tell Laura I love her'" (from "Tell Laura I Love Her") filled the airwaves. If you can imagine the dreams of a young couple drifting off to sleep at the drive-in while a teenaged werewolf howls from the giant silver screen and one of these sad and sappy songs plays on a tinny AM radio, then you can easily imagine Circuit Playhouse's production of Zombie Prom. It's a giddy, kitschy ode to all things retro and radioactive.
Director Michael Duggan has turned Zombie Prom into an exercise in glorious excess. There is so much going on at any one time there is no way to catch it all. The show begins, for all practical purposes, in the lobby shortly after patrons pick up their tickets and walk through a silver tinsel curtain into a nattily decorated ball room. Shimmering foil letters welcome the audience to a magical "evening of miracles and molecules." Patrons are then met, inspected, and fumigated by ominous silent ushers in bulky white radiation suits before they are admitted into the auditorium. The silly device is old hat to be sure and almost a direct rip-off of the original London production of The Rocky Horror Show, but it fits Zombie Prom like a blue rubber glove.
I don't think I'll be giving anything away by revealing a bit of the storyline. It is, after all, an old, time-honored plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy jumps into a nuclear reactor and becomes a glowing, green-eyed zombie who just wants to get his diploma, marry his girlfriend, and live happily ever after. Toss in a stern high school principal to provide just a modicum of prefabricated conflict and a sleazy tabloid journalist with a big last-minute secret to reveal, and that's pretty much all there is to it. The pace is breakneck and the songs are clever and catchy. In a time when cumbersome, self-important operas have come to dominate the stage, this retro rocket from the crypt is a real blast of fresh air.
Dan Gingert starts out a bit awkwardly as Jonny, a leather-jacket-sporting greaser so rebellious that he even removed the "h" from his name. He shuffles around the stage like he would rather be somewhere else, striking tentative poses which scream out, "Gotta-go-baffroom." But the knock-kneed navel-gazing ends once Jonny becomes zombified. Gingert quite literally comes alive and exudes unimaginable sweetness while he rocks the house.
With her pretty pouting and squeaky but irresistible voice, Courtney Ell is nothing short of stunning as the lovestruck Toffee. She delivers even her most ludicrous lines with sincerity and supreme conviction. Her song, "Jonny, Don't Go to the Nuclear Plant," is so energetic and engaging that it's next to impossible not to sing along at the top of your lungs. Resist the urge though. You won't want to miss a single syllable. Neither will you want to miss the synchronized antics of the chorus as they dance about in safety goggles and lab coats providing perfect three-point harmony.
Sally Kroeker's Principal Strict is perfection in a hobble-skirt. Stomping about with her metal ruler in hand and a mouthful of platitudes, she is every student's nightmare. On the other hand, there is something mighty sexy about discipline, and the vertically blessed Ms. Kroeker seems to know it. An intensely comic seduction scene between Principal Strict and scandal-sheet editor Eddie Flagrante (played to the seedy teeth by Kent Fleshman) appears to be the most fun two actors have ever had on any stage, anywhere, at any time. And the fun is infectious.
I would be remiss not to single out and praise Rebecca Sederbaum, Raine Hicks, Kayce Matthews, Arlyn Mick, Jordan Nichols, and Cary Vaughn, who play the students at Enrico Fermi High. This chorus never fades into the background, and thanks to Michael Duggan's supersized direction and Jay Rapp's stellar choreography, every performer has his or her scenery-chewing moment in the spotlight.
Zombie Prom isn't particularly original. Off-kilter musical comedies sending up 1950s-style drive-in horror movies became rather commonplace in the latter half of the 20th century. Richard O'Brien's glammed-out, deliciously perverse Rocky Horror Show started it all back in 1973, and the subtler, but no less perverse Little Shop of Horrors made its bloody, musical mark in the '80s. While it is not nearly as subversive as its aforementioned predecessors, Zombie Prom is no less destined for, or deserving of, cult status.
Through June 17th
I know it's not the critic's place to solicit funding, but somebody really does need to give Our Own Voice Theatre Company a lot of money so they can afford to run their shows for at least a month. One weekend just isn't enough time for them to build the regular audience they deserve. It's frustrating for a critic to sit down and write a glowing review of a show that has already ended, especially when it's a show he knows nobody saw. But such is life for this ephemeral troupe, which has too often been pigeonholed as nothing more than an outlet for the mentally disadvantaged.
Against all odds, this group, which is made up of a fistful of local theater artists working hand in hand with mental-healthcare consumers, continues to produce the most challenging, innovative theater in Memphis. I'd go so far as to say they might be the most interesting performance troupe in the South, and on a good day I'd even say they were the most consistently surprising, entertaining, and thought-provoking group working outside of Chicago. What they lack in terms of spit and polish is more than compensated for in cleverness and raw courage.
Our Own Voice recently staged Spurt of Blood, the seminal, if never-performed, prototype for Antonin Artaud's often misunderstood Theatre of Cruelty. Those who missed it missed not the best but certainly the most exciting theatrical event of the year. Using puppets ranging in size from the standard sock to colossal cardboard constructions with exploding breasts, bits of rubble, broken toys, and scrap fabric, Our Own Voice served up a very funny, sometimes startling visual feast. They successfully presented the collision of stars, battles in the heavens, full-scale apocalypse, armies of cockroaches, and a sweet teenage tale of forbidden love to boot. Brilliant and beautiful, hysterical and unnerving, Spurt of Blood was everything it needed to be and more. E.E. Cummings' Santa Claus, with Bill Baker as Death and Andy Diggs as a somewhat serious incarnation of that jolly fat elf, made a fine companion piece for Spurt of Blood. This overwrought bit of surrealist drama was like a nightmarish Warner Bros. cartoon before the most whacked-out feature you can imagine.