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`Living Dead’ comes alive at Rust Belt

October 20, 2012 - Andy Gray
“Living Dead: The Musical” should have a long life at the Rust Belt Theater Company.

And I wouldn’t be shocked to see it rise at other theaters if writers Robert Dennick Joki and Josh Taylor decide to pursue it.

The musical had its world premiere Friday at the Calvin Center, and it has several great songs and some big laughs as it parodies zombie tales in general and “Night of the Dead” in particular.

Nicole Zayas plays an Elvira-like movie hostess leading the opening number “Midnight Moonlight Movie Show” before the production goes into a set up that will be familiar to fans of George A. Romero’s low-budget horror classic.

Brother and sister Johnny (David Cirelli) and Barbara (Kelsie Moon) are heading to visit their father’s gravesite, and the song “Three Hour Drive” is the first of several examples of what Joki and Taylor do best, mixing traditional Broadway musical songcraft with a lacerating wit.

Bad things happen at the cemetery, leaving Johnny disemboweled and a shell-shocked Barbara seeking shelter at a nearby house. Joki directed the Oakland Center for the Arts’ production of “Evil Dead: The Musical” last spring, but he doesn’t try to compete with that show in the gore department. Johnny’s death is more arty than bloody, and there’s no need for a splash zone this time.

There she encounters Ben (Kage Coven), a Black Panther who has been fighting off the undead. Joki said in an interview earlier this week that he wrote the role of Ben specifically for Coven, and he couldn’t be better. He shines as the tough-talkin’, moonwalkin’ character on “I Got Yo’ Black.”

They are soon joined by a racist father (Tom Smith), his battered wife (Geri DeWitt) and young daughter (Grace Offerdahl) and another couple, Judy (Marisa Zamary) and Tom (played by Joki for the opening weekend and Andy Peretic for the rest of the run). And for the rest of the show they fight among each other as they fight off the undead.

Most musicals tend to be top-loaded, stuffing the best songs in the first act. “Living Dead” is the opposite, packing its biggest musical punch after intermission. Zamary dazzles on “The Slutty Girl Is the One Who Gets Eaten First,” which will have audiences laughing so hard they might not realize what a well-honed work it is. And it is immediately followed by another winner, “He Only Hits Me Cuz He Loves Me,’’ a country ballad sung by Zamary and DeWitt.

But the song that audiences will be humming as they leave the theater is “Gabriel’s Horn,” a hilarious tune about Tom’s seemingly closeted sexuality and his turn to the Bible. The double entendre-filled number is made even more outrageous by the accompanying choreography.

Joki, who also directed the production, makes good use of the non-traditional space, letting the action unfold in the middle of the room with the audience sitting on three sides. However, it’s easy to envision the show playing on a proscenium stage at other theaters.

“Living Dead” could use a little tweaking before that happens. Moon has great comedic timing and a fine voice as Barbara, but the first act is a little heavy on ballad/mid-tempo songs, and she has two or three numbers bunched together that are too similar in style. “Where We Go” (I’m guessing at the title since the Post-It Note-sized program didn’t included them) easily could be dropped.

And the first act finale “I Think I’m in the Wrong Musical” works OK in this space because of Joki’s and Rust Belt’s history of doing “The Rocky Horror Show’’ at Halloween, but I’m not sure how well the idea works in the context of the show. And it could have generated a couple more laughs if the choreography had been more overtly “Time Warp”-y.

For its three-week run at Rust Belt, “I Think I’m in the Wrong Musical” will be performed by a different mystery guest at each performance, and Joki also is promising a different ending each weekend. The ending Friday was fine, and frankly, “Living Dead: The Musical” doesn’t need the gimmicks.

It’s more than good enough without them. Don’t miss it.

“Living Dead: The Musical” will be staged at 8 p.m. Oct 20 and Nov. 2 and 8 p.m. and midnight Oct. 26 and Nov. 3 at the Calvin Center, 755 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens. For reservations or more information, call 330-507-2358.


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