What’s the appropriate course of action when the dead won’t stay dead? It’s a serious dilemma. Charge forward with a flaming torch? Run screaming in a tight dress and heels?
Ancient Celts hollowed out gourds to carry spirits into the realm of the living when corpses grew restless on All Hallow’s Eve. So, as Halloween approaches in Detroit — a city as notorious for Devil’s Night as it is for white flight — how should citizens calm those restless souls that are apt to clog the atmosphere? Well, dress up like zombies and sing, of course (with spaghetti falling out of their mouths)!
Hey, no one ever said dead folks were pretty. But as the cast of Night of the Living Dead (The Musical) proves, it sure is cathartic to laugh at them — provided, of course, that they don’t eat your brains.
Those damn(ed) musicals
Writer-director Thomas Hoagland and composer Chad Kushuba had never written a musical prior to Night of the Living Dead (which was actually performed for the first time last year at the ZeitGeist). In fact, Hoagland didn’t even like musicals. Their melodrama didn’t exactly jibe with what was happening at Abreact, a loft-turned-theater he had co-founded in Greektown.
It was at Abreact one night, though, that the challenge flew: Make the next show a musical. Hoagland preferred something “Halloweenish,” but when pressed for his favorite horror movie — Night of the Living Dead — someone tacked “… the musical” on the end. (Insert laugh track, then image of light bulb floating over Hoagland’s head.)
Now, the concept makes so much sense that it’s almost hard to believe no one ever morphed this classic horror movie into an outlandishly classic musical before. Horror flicks amplify fear and excitement. Musicals practically ooze sentimentality. Put those two hyper sensations together and it makes for great comedy. Especially when you’re already working with George A. Romero’s oddball movie characters, who’d be chuckling at their predicament if they weren’t so busy smacking each other up and gunning each other down.
The perfect family
Hoagland didn’t limit himself to Romero’s nutty crew, though. He tweaked a little here, added a few characters there and still retained such a strong flavor of the movie that NOTLD worshippers will have to recognize another true fan in Hoagland. Here’s the way he sees it:
Lights go up on Kushuba, who not only wrote all the show’s music and lyrics but also serves as singer of the house band, Necro Mulligan, and the Narrator. Darkly well-dressed, the Narrator’s omnipotent presence gives him either an all-knowing God quality or a Faust-like demon quality. Which one is it?
“There’s much debate about that,” Kushuba says, mysteriously refusing to answer the question. “I’m certainly Lord of the Zombies because they seem to take cues from me, and they never hurt me. Some of them even smile at me.”
Fair enough. After encountering Kushuba, we’re transported graveside where Barbara (Misty Stankiewicz) and Johnny (Brett Warren) are paying respects to their dead mother. Sure, in the movie it was a father, but when mom zombie Jen House makes her unique entrance, you’ll be glad Hoagland wrote a part specifically for this local comedian. But we digress …
Johnny is eaten by Bub the zombie (Eric Maher), forcing Barbara to flee to a nearby farmhouse, where she encounters Ben (Phil Bolden) and the rest of the wacky story unfolds. Hoagland sees Romero’s race card and even does him one better by characterizing the African-American Ben as a true homey, lost in gross urban sprawl, from which all evil originates.
“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing in the suburbs. Never again, man. Never again,” Ben laments after being attacked by zombies.
Bolden plays his character so well that the focus on race actually forces audiences to shake their heads at Hoagland’s stereotypically “white” characters — especially Sheriff Zeb (Keith Kalinowski) and the true American meathead, Mr. Rust (James Mio). Mio is a new addition to the cast, and his character gives the already politically tinged script legs to crawl beyond city-vs.-suburbs issues and into the national arena.
“9/11 happened while I was sitting at the computer trying to think of how to end Act One,” Hoagland explains. An end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it feeling already colored last year’s show. This year, Hoagland picks up where he left off with Rust, a beefy redneck who rants about rounding up zombies and putting ’em in camps because “we should of never let ’em in this country in the first place.” True wit.
The show does have its slapstick moments, though — the family in the basement being a prime example. Oh, poor Harry (Ed Vogel). In the movie, he’s just a dad gone crazy with fear, perhaps forgetting what’s best for his wife, Helen (Tami Tabbacci), and daughter, Sara (Maria Haag), in the process. Here, Harry’s a complete wuss and the nasal, alcoholic Helen pleads for him to go upstairs to get help for Sara, who has been injured by a zombie … oh, and to fetch her a drink.
Haag adopts a priceless pout in the song “Perfect Family” as her parents whine over her dying body and she just sings over and over, “I hate you both!”
But what’s a horror movie without a chick screaming in a tight dress? Misty Stankiewicz provides a perfect counterpoint to Haag’s evil little girl. In real life, Stankiewicz is a dental assistant, sign language interpreter, sometimes television correspondent and professional illusionist. And with all that packed into one personality, she makes the perfect Barbara. At least the way Hoagland and Kushuba have portrayed her.
“She’s totally clichéd,” Stankiewicz says of her character. “She’s screaming and falling out of her mind for the whole first act … and then she goes from classic horror movie chick to heroine. How cool is that?”
Incredibly cool, if you’ve seen the movie and know Barbara as a spineless numb-nuts whose death-by-zombie is actually a relief. Here, Babs begins as the shocked Puritan, nailed by Stankiewicz with her furrowed brow and gaze lost somewhere in the distance. But before the musical’s over, big B has switched it up as she peers coolly at other characters down the barrel of a gun. The contrast is striking, and Stankiewicz makes it happen with her dark eyes and confident stance.
Detroit’s new legacy
Hastings Street Ballroom has a larger capacity than the ZeitGiest, so if you want to see Barbara blowing zombies away, you stand a good chance of nabbing a graveside seat. But Hoagland and Kushuba point out that last year’s shows were almost uniformly sold out. So start making plans now, if you don’t want to be turned out into the creepy, dark streets.
And take a cue from Hoagland who recently moved to New York City, but is back home in Detroit for a bit — in part to resurrect this deathly funny musical. Don’t let a single restless spirit stand between you and the Motor City this Halloween season. Why? Because Devil’s Night might be Detroit’s frightening legacy – but it ain’t got nothin’ on the singing, swinging Night of the Living Dead (The Musical).
Night of the Living Dead (The Musical) will play Oct. 18-20, 24-26 and 31 and Nov. 1-2 at the Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit). Show time is 8 p.m. (Oct. 20, 4 p.m.). Tickets are $15 at the door. Call 313-870-9002.Kari Jones writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]