Review: 'Night of the Living Dead' at New Line Theatre Feeds on Brains

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

When George Romero made “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, he tapped into the most basic primal human emotion—fear. Specifically, fear of the unknown. It’s why children are afraid of monsters under the bed and boogey men in the closet, and why each of us has been hardwired to fear the darkness ever since prehistoric man first dreaded the unknown beasts lurking just beyond the glow of the firelight. It wasn’t the darkness man feared—it was what the darkness might contain.

Cast of "Night of the Living Dead" at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Cast of “Night of the Living Dead” at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

 

The stage musical version of Romero’s B movie classic now playing at New Line Theatre isn’t a parody, nor does it brook any suggestion of camp. It’s a straightforward, dramatic musical that relies not on blood or guts, but on the notion that the boogeyman is actually coming in from the dark. You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.

Created by writer-lyricist Stephen Gregory Smith and composer-lyricist Matt Conner, “Night of the Living Dead,” has only been workshopped in New York and had one production at a small theater in Maryland prior to New Line presenting this regional premiere. All the familiar New Line trappings are in full force: A strong cast singing the dickens out of a complicated score, a creative set, a tight and talented New Line band, plus the usual rock-solid staging by Scott Miller.

Mike Dowdy in "Night of the Living Dead" at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Mike Dowdy in “Night of the Living Dead” at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

 

The plot is simple enough. A disparate group of individuals are holed up in a house as a steadily growing army of living dead—what we now call zombies—attempt to get inside. The people try to figure a way out as tension among them escalates, leading to bickering, madness, and murder.

Zachary Allen Farmer plays Ben, the de facto leader of the group, who doesn’t take fools lightly. Marcy Wiegert as Barbra is catatonic with shock until she just can’t hold the horror in any longer, while Mike Dowdy and Sarah Porter play Harry and Helen—he the stubborn, irrational, short-tempered husband and she his downtrodden wife. Joseph McAnulty and Mary Beth Black play a young couple who are the most likable of the characters, with a special mention for Phoebe Desilets, the creepiest (and most darling) little zombie girl ever.

Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert in "Night of the Living Dead" at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert in “Night of the Living Dead” at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

 

The score is complex–lush even–and the cast sings it very, very well—something that’s come to be expected at New Line—but it feels as though the music doesn’t quite belong to this show, as though it wandered into the wrong rehearsal. The movie is primal and digs into our most primal fear. It’s stripped down to its bare bones. The music seems overly intricate by comparison, abandoning its B movie roots and leaving the raw urgency behind.

Still, there is an awful lot here to like. The acting is strong throughout and Miller builds a slow but steady atmosphere of tension as we wait for the inevitable zombie encroachment. The psychological tension is tight too, as the conflicts among the group multiply as steadily as the numbers of living dead outside. Rob Lippert’s set is nice, especially the small unit that effectively serves as several stairwells, doors and even a basement. Marcy Wiegert and Sarah Porter do a nice job with costumes, and Kerrie Mondy’s sound design is spot on.

Sarah Porter in "Night of the Living Dead" at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sarah Porter in “Night of the Living Dead” at New Line Theatre. Photo by JIll Ritter Lindberg

 

On a weekend where zombies have invaded St. Louis, two “Deads” are definitely better than one. People love to be scared, and our imaginations can come up with things far more horrifying than anything out there in the dark. With “Night of the Living Dead,” no blood and guts are necessary. Just bring your imagination.

For the other zombie movie-gone-musical playing in town, see the review of Stray Dog Theatre’s “Evil Dead: The Musical.

“Night of the Living Dead” continues at New Line Theatre through November 2. For tickets and information visit the New Line website.

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