By Patrice Nolan, Encore Michigan
FERNDALE – At long last, it's Hannibal Lecter as you've never seen him! He sings! He dances! He chews the fat with Clarice Starling, darling of the FBI Academy. Yes, it's SILENCE! The Musical, and it's as shockingly hilarious as the acclaimed horror film was terrifying. And that's saying something.
In 1991, "Silence of the Lambs" clinched five Academy Awards and quickly earned the kind of cult status that would inspire the ultimate homage – an unauthorized parody. Think of the movie's most iconic scenes and quotable lines and then replay them in your head for laughs. We're pretty sure that's what brothers Jon and Al Kaplan did when they composed more than a dozen original songs and engaged Hunter Bell to write the book for Silence! The Musical. It took the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival by storm, enjoyed Off-Broadway success, and is now dancing its way into the hearts of patrons at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale.
No one does live parody the way The Ringwald does live parody – with such passion, with such daring, and with such shameless go-for-the-funny-bone ruthlessness. Directed by Joe Bailey, this production echoes the plot of the original horror film beat for beat – elevating actual lines from the screenplay to power-anthem status – and provoking a live laugh-track courtesy of the audience.
The play opens with a chorus of adorable hoofers – floppy-eared lambs with tiny black hooves – who cavort on stage while tunefully delivering the prologue. Lily Belle Czartorski is the traumatized-but-tough FBI recruit, Agent Starling; she's an orphan girl trying to make it in a world of misogynists, perverts and mansplainers. Czartorski spoofs the Jodie Foster role with hilarious intensity, wielding the trademark squint and quirky lisp as if she's playing Richard III. John DeMerell lends his considerable talents to the role of Hannibal Lecter, which requires him to power through a beautiful, rangy song ("If I Could Smell Her") without cracking himself up at the filthy nature of the lyrics. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to catch all the clever lines, not because the singing is weak, but because the audience is howling so loudly.
There are kitsch nods to things like French poodles, Hannibal Lecter's art, and severed heads. And then there's the serial murderer himself, Buffalo Bill, played with all the subtlety of a confetti cannon by Richard Payton. In lieu of the sinister night-vision goggles, he has a vintage ViewMaster strapped to his head. And the infamous kimono dance scene? Yeah, that happens, too, and in Mr. Payton's inimitable style. In truth, the decibel level of the laughter grows in indirect proportion to the propriety of the subject matter. The more disturbing the scene, the louder the audience response. But this is more than the embarrassed sniggering of boys with bad teenage moustaches. There is artfulness here – in the clever song lyrics, the terrific tunes, and in the accuracy with which the film's symbolic themes are flaunted like a dancer's fan.
The parody spins gold out of the most squeamishly uncomfortable scenes in the film, and you may find it worth watching the movie again just to pick up on all the inside jokes. The film's gore is implied here but never manifest. In fact, the most graphic murder scene in the film – in which Hannibal Lecter "wears" the skinned face of his murder victim like a mask – is recreated in the play by having Hannibal wear an ill-proportioned photo-copied head-shot of the other actor. The inventive use of lighting, audio, props, and fourth-wall-shattering bravado compel the audience to embrace the spirit of gleeful naughtiness that rules the Ringwald for 90-minutes without pause.
The actors do yeoman comedy work – physical and otherwise – and, oddly enough, provide some truly lovely music. Even the choreography is fun. Richard Payton, Hannah Taubitz, Dale Dobson, Casey S. Hibbert, Ryan Kayla and Kevin Kaminski play assorted doctors, FBI agents, victims, parents and, of course, dancing lambs. Only Czartorski and DeMerell are dedicated to their roles as Starling and Lecter, respectively.
Director Joe Bailey is supported by a production team than includes musical direction by Jeff Bobick, choreography by Molly Zaleski, set design by Jennifer Maiseloff, costume design by Vince Kelley, lighting design by Brandy Joe Plambeck, and stage management by Chris Peterson.
Let's be clear about one thing. If you are wondering about bringing children, your church pastor, or a blind date, reread this review. Or re-watch "Silence of the Lambs." This play features a male lead who is criminally insane and thinks it's okay to eat other people. As in, with a nice chianti. The psycho killer skins his victims for sartorial recycling and has really confused ideas about sexuality and gender issues. There are guns (well, okay, pointed fingers and the sound of gunshots) and sadistic mayhem. Worse than that, there's foul language, jokes about fat people, and implied brutality to plush animals. So, you've been warned. If, however, you are simply worried about gratuitous displays of gore or getting wayward blood spatters on your new chinos – not to worry – this production doesn't go there. It's good, clean fun.
Silence! The Musical is more entertaining than it has any right to be. If you need an evening of guilty-pleasure, cathartic laughter, this is just what the doctor ordered. Of course, that doctor is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and never forget – he's got skin in the game.