Dear Reader: Here is the first in what I hope will be a series of Second Opinion reviews here on EIKILFM. The authors will be coming from my growing population of theater and criticism students at the Boston Conservatory. First up: One of the best students I've had in the 8 years I've been teaching at the BoCo. Because this former student is now a working actor, he will be going by a pseudonym, in the interest of protecting his chances for future employment. But I think you'll find that he adds a welcome and valuable voice to the EIKILFM conversation. --C.C.
What's that, discerning theatergoer? Current crop of New York musicals leaving you feeling a little unsatisfied? Wicked suffered from an absence of cannibalism? You felt Chicago could have benefited from a "CSI" subplot? Lots of glitzy frocks in La Cage, but none of them made from human skin? Well, my friends, have I got the musical for you!
Silence! The Musical, based upon the Oscar-winning film "The Silence of the Lambs," is currently in the midst of a newly-extended run at the divey but historic Theater 80, and the show amounts to a diverting, oft-hilarious evening of musical silliness, thanks to smart direction, consistently clever staging, Hunter Bell's superlative book, and a uniformly loopy cast.
I was tickled from the moment I set foot into the space, its dingy black brick walls enhanced by Carl Casella's smart sound design, dropping the audience right into the bowels of Buffalo's Bill's basement. My anticipation was high as the curtain rose, only to be brought back to earth two minutes later. The titular opening number belies the riotousness that permeates most of Silence!, but immediately illuminates the show's greatest liability, Jon and Al Kaplan's score (more on that later).
Thankfully, the show retained its two greatest assets from its hit 2005 incarnation at the New York International Fringe Festival: librettist Hunter Bell and director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli. Bell's gleefully self-aware book is, as was his deservedly Tony-nominated script for [title of show], top-notch, revealing a gloriously off-kilter wit. And Gattelli provides solid, often inspired staging, including a lot of clever stage business for the show's Greek chorus of lambs, which appears at intervals throughout the show, as well as a monumentally silly Agnes DeMille-inspired dream ballet.
The cast of New York veterans, many of whom are returning from the Fringe production, includes a howlingly funny, lisping Jenn Harris as FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in the film). The show also features terrific turns from Stephen Bienskie as "Buffalo Bill" (Oh, dear God, the tuck...the tuck...you knew it was coming.); Harry Bouvy as an appropriately-grating Dr. Chilton, asylum psychiatrist, nemesis, and future lunch of Lecter; and, in a plethora of roles, Jeff Hiller, of the undeservedly short-lived, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, who may just be one of the weirdest, funniest actors currently working in the New York theater.
Broadway regular Brent Barrett, in a bit of a departure, is inspired casting as the cannibalistic antihero, smartly departing just enough from Anthony Hopkins' now-legendary performance. His cool, mannered intelligence and just the right amount of smarm provides a perfect foil to Harris' exaggerated naivety, and the production comes to life the most during their scenes together.
However, neither Bell nor Gattelli nor the actors can fully overcome what is ultimately the production's downfall, which, oddly enough, existed before any of the above came on board: the dreadful, amateurish score. The songs are structurally and musically elementary, and the lyrics are some of the laziest that I've ever encountered on a professional stage. In the opening number alone, I noted "you" rhymed with "suit" and "FBI" with "nine." When lyricists such as Cole Porter used near rhymes or invented nonsensical words to complete a rhyme, it was a conscious decision to break the defined form for comic emphasis. The score for Silence! is so laden with such careless wordplay that it is clearly unintentional. As Stephen Sondheim once said, "Without form, the idea, no matter how small in ambition, becomes flaccid...Like a note that's a bit off pitch, a false rhyme doesn't destroy the meaning, but it weakens it."
This is not to say that there are not glimmers of winking cleverness here. Lecter belts out a hysterical ballad in which his unfulfilled longing for true connection is expressed through a jealous desire to be able to smell the...er..."see you next Tuesday" of this lovely, young FBI agent, as the nutjob in the next cell claims he can. Perhaps, if Lecter could, then maybe he, "could taste humanity again." And kudos for actually completing a true rhyme with "bearded clam." Now that is a rhyme of which Sondheim and Porter might be proud.
Also perplexing about the lyrics is that Hannibal Lecter speaks with the same voice and vocabulary as every other character. This rings rather false, since Lecter's brilliance almost defies words and he is endlessly cultured. His rhymes in the Kaplans' score sound as if they came, not from a lifetime's worth of immersion in academia and classicism, but rather straight from a B-grade children's book. The crux of the problem is that, without form, the clever ideas do not coalesce into a clever whole, and set to a monotonous score (their homage to Howard Shore's score is useless without Shore's orchestrations), the songs become a tedious interruption from Bell's screamingly funny book.
It's not difficult for me to recommend Silence!, for the sum of its parts is worth the two hours I spent in this East Village hole in the wall. But, ironically, since the score begat everything else, it holds the piece back from true comic genius and camp-classic status. -- Randall Marsh
Randall Marsh is the pen name for a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory. Randall lives and works as an actor in New York City.