Scott Miller's "The Zombies of Penzance" Has Heart and Brains

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Zachary Allen Farmer, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor and Sean Michael in New Line Theatre's "Zombies of Penzance" -- Photo Credit Jill Ritter Lindberg

It was the last evening of 1879 when Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates of Penzance debuted to great success. Now, just a few months shy of an even 140 years, New Line Theatre has debuted a "long lost early draft" where Gilbert had a different kind of scurvy-ridden, rotted-toothed, snarling adversary in mind for a Modern Major General and his darling daughters. 

Gilbert & Sullivan's The Zombies of Penzance or At Night Come the Flesh Eaters is a zombie musical parody set in the apparently cursed land of Penzance-- if it's not pirates, it's zombies. Someday it will be robots or ninjas or vampires or Republicans, but this time it's zombies. We'll come back to that shortly. 
 
It's a cleverly written parody by W.S. Gilbert and New Line's Artistic Director Scott Miller, with music by Arthur Sullivan and John Gerdes. It takes a sharp, educated ear to get symphonic jokes, and a couple of members of the audience laughed out loud at the Intro suite, which was a medley of George Romero horror film scores mixed into the traditional Arthur Sullivan piratical orchestrations. 
 
The names are still the same, as is most of the plot. Frederic, played by Sean Michael, is a freshly risen zombie, has a moral issue with the traditional zombie lifestyle. He confuses his zombie horde, including Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Tim Kaniecki, and Kyle Kelesoma, as well as Zombie Sam, reanimated by Kent Coffel, and Zombie King, alive again via Dominic Dowdy-Windsor. 
 
Soon the zombies encounter seven stunning sisters, and like the zombies only some have proper names. The nameless are Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak, and Sarah Porter. Lindsey Jones is Kate, Kimi Short is Isabel, Christina Rios is Edith, and Melissa Phelps is Mabel, who falls in love with Frederic the recently deceased. It's a bit uncomfortable and gross to ponder inter-mortal relationships, but you can't control love; you can only hope to contain it. 
 
Of course, the zombies immediate hit upon the idea that they should marry and then eat the ladies, and one by one each monster chooses their spouse/supper. Who can possibly save them? Enter Major General Stanley, the very model of a modern major zombie killer...and also the ladies' dad. Threats are made, plans are hatched and betrayals occur. As endings go, it's certainly not the happiest but it's absolutely the most appropriate. To give finer details would be a disservice to future audiences, but if you're familiar with the more swashbuckling version you'll have a (mostly) good idea of what to expect. 
 
If you've never seen a New Line Theatre production this would be a good one to start with. The cast features some really terrific voices, especially among the ladies. Stalwarts like Kimi Short and Sarah Porter are tremendous as usual (Short is also the Prop Master and Porter is also the Costume Designer) and Linsey Jones and Mara Bollini, more recent regulars, fit right in. Christina Rios is no stranger at New Line though she's involved in other theatre groups regularly and serves as the artistic director at R-S Theatrics. It's always a treat to see this extremely busy woman perform. Melanie Kozak has a long association with New Line as part of Scenic Designer Rob Lippert's build team, but this marks her first appearance on the New Line stage when the curtain is up. She's a talented actress and singer, and hopefully she'll be a more regular performer for New Line. Melissa Phelps seems a natural choice for Mabel, combining a strong operatic voice with her charming youthful appearance  -- a good pairing with Sean Michael. 
 
Michael's higher range cut though the jaunty (for zombies) lower octaves of his fellow zombies, making his presence known. The highlight of his performance is the three songs he shares with Kent Coffel and Dominic Dowdy-Windsor. "Now I Shalk Prove My Love," "When I Had Left Your Zombie Pack," and "Away, Away! My Heart's On Fire," are a diverse set, rife with mirth and zombie culture references. The unnamed zombies don't have many vocal parts beyond the ensemble, but for a cast so large in a small space performing operatic style, the cast sounds quite clear. 
 
And then there's Zachary Allen Farmer, the baritone voiced, mustachioed master of comedic timing and delivery. From the moment he first hit the stage the audience roared in approval. He immediately launched into a rapid-fire yet perfectly enunciated parody of the oft-immitated "Modern Major General" that perhaps only Al Yankovic could equal. Scott Miller committed fully to making that vintage musical favorite a prefect parody and it completely worked. In fact, the whole show works thanks to Miller (and Gilbert, of course, presumably now a zombie himself) expertly weaving modern horror tropes with a truly classic American opera.
 
The always brilliant New Line band took on a distinctly more orchestral sound than uual and permed beautifully. Thi iteration consists of Music Director Nicolas Valdez conducting and on Piano, John Gerdes on the French Horn, Lea Gerdes on various Reeds along with Kelly Austermann and Hope Walker, Joseph Hendricks on Bassoon, Emily Trista Lane on the Cello and Twinda Murry on Violin.
 
I hate zombies. Can't stand them. They're the laziest, most ill-conceived, just God-awful clicheés in the history of horror cinema if not the art of storytelling itself. New Line Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor are directly to blame for making me sit through another tortuous two hours of undead dread, just as they did a few years ago with Night of the Living Dead: The Musical. And just like last time, I loved the show despite the presence of my least favorite horror trope of all time. I'm sure Miller is alreaedy plotting some way of turning Hamilton into a zombie story one of these days, probably subtitled A Duel to the Undeath in the Undead States of America. Oh joy. Heaven forbid he do something cool, like Pirates of Rent. I can hear it now,.."Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred gold coins! Aargh matey!" Pirates are always cooler than zombies...accept when Miller and Dowdy-Windsor are involved, apparently. 
 
If you're looking for an uproarious way to spend a couple of hours, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Zombies of Penzance or At Night Come the Flesh Eaters is a no-brainer! Visit www.newlinetheatre.com for more information and reserve your tickets now. 
Grade: 
4.5 / 5.0