Rest assured that the adorable all-singing-all-dancing lamb chorus integrated throughout “Silence! The Musical” is not poor or lost and won’t be singing anything remotely like “The Whiffenpoof Song.” Adorned with floppy white ears and tapping hoofs, they do, however prepare us for the “homicidal freaks, lunatics behind steel bars, women missing skin, and decapitated heads in jars” that are about to show up in this “unauthorized” parody of the 1991 Academy Award-winning horror film “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Know that it may now be officially labeled as an affectionately re-authorized spoof by its adapters/collaborators Hunter Bell (book — Bell also wrote the book for “[title of show]”), John and Al Kaplan (music and lyrics), and Christopher Catelli (direction and choreography), thereby justifying its presence as well as its purpose to entertain. Overflowing with delectably prurient innuendos and bursting with deliriously campy conventions, “Silence! The Musical” may take the prize as the most sophomorically scabrous musical comedy of this or possibly any season.
The famously quotable dialogue (Ted Talley won one of the film’s four Academy Awards for his adapted screenplay based on the novel by Thomas Harris) has been ravenously distilled and/or distorted to sufficiently satisfy the collaborators’ concerted cravings. The result for them and for fans of the film (and others) is a breezily rewarding, laughably lurid romp through serial-killer land.
“Silence! The Musical” became the runaway hit of the 2005 NYC Fringe Festival, winning the award for Best Musical. Bell’s book can certainly be commended for staying faithful to the nerves-jangling psychological underpinnings that drive the relationship between FBI agent trainee Clarice Starling (Jenn Harris) and her mind-infiltrating nemesis/serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Brent Barrett) whom she affectionately refers to as “Hannibal the Cannibal.”
Bell has embraced the source material with unapologetically adoring school-boy affection as well as with a sense of humor that certainly makes it palatable for the more lily-livered among us, with twists to Lecter’s delicious lines like, “Truth be told, it was an indifferent ’31 Beaujolais and a fluffy rice pilaf.”
The plot revolves around the incarcerated Lecter’s ability to help the determined Starling find a maniac who is still on the loose, a transvestite, Jaimie Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill” (Stephen Bienskie) who kidnaps overweight women (“Are You a Size 14?”) and skins them alive to make dresses. Starling’s efforts are further complicated by her FBI boss Sgt. Pembry (Jeff Hiller) and the lecherous prison psychiatrist Dr. Chilton (Harry Bouvy).
The question: Will Agent Starling be able rescue chubby Senator Martin’s equally chubby daughter, Catherine, before she ends up as a dress? Both mother and daughter are played by the versatile Lucia Spina in complimentary blonde curly wigs that look like they might have been skinned off Bernadette Peters’ scalp. Except for leads Harris and Barrett, the rest of the company, including the lambs, also double as “others.”
The whole idea, of course, is for the audience to have fun re-visiting this cult favorite, as conceived through director Christopher Gattelli’s own laudably skewed perspective. Designer Scott Pask’s production design is simple but smartly engineered to accommodate four panels on rollers (often pulled and pushed around and into place by the lambs who also serve as backup singers). The laughs begin with the wonderfully droll Harris as we recognize how accurately she is mimicking Jodie Foster’s (Clarice in the film) slight Southern-accent and her not-so-slight speech impediment.
While Brent Barrett is also currently starring on Broadway as Billy Flynn in “Chicago” during the week he appears to be having no problem doubling just on weekends as Dr. Lecter. He has the good looks and the stirring singing voice that add the extra dimensions that make the cool, calm, and calculating Lecter a rather dashing lunatic. However, don’t expect any of the bone-chilling or blood-curdling resonance of the 20-year-old film to infiltrate this musical.
What you can expect is plenty of suggestive imagery in the musical numbers, particularly “Quid Pro Quo” and “If I Could Smell Your C—t,” the latter segueing into an hilariously risque pas de deux performed by Callan Bergmann and Ashlee Dupree as Starling’s and Lecter’s counterparts in a dream-world. Intentional or not, the entire company performs in a Ziegfeld-styled production number featuring huge butterfly fans that is reminiscent of the one that Barrett performs with the chorus in “Chicago.” The savvy audience caught on quickly and showed their approval.
It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to laugh aloud at choreography and Gattelli’s dance vocabulary gives us plenty of opportunities. Perhaps a bit gross, but his intentions are clearly intended to be blatantly puerile, thereby self-validating. This is particularly evident in an outrageously comical exercise in masturbation, as performed with consummate alacrity and precision by always over-the-top Hiller, in his other role as compulsive sexual deviant prisoner Miggs.
The responsive audience that packed the tiny Theater 80 couldn’t seem to get enough of the musical’s abundance of bathroom humor. Many fondly recalled scenes from the film, however comically deranged, were met with screams of delight. The musical sticks very closely to the story and only strays to let the talented performers loose to twist and chew up the dialogue or to burst into flights of musical dementia, as with “Buffalo Bill’s” aria “I’d F—k Me” (you won’t be shocked if you know the film). Except for the fact that you would never sing the songs in polite company, they have the sound of old school musical theater, quite witty and melodious, and played with gusto by the three-piece off-stage band.
Deidre Goodwin is impressive as FBI agent Ardelia Mapp whose interest in Clarice is shown to be more than helping her shoot straight. Of course there is nothing straight about the psycho “Buffalo Bill,” as played to en travestie perfection by Bienski. What makes this low-budget musical homage so endearing is that it makes you smile instead of squirm.
While I wouldn’t place a bet on “Silence! The Musical” becoming the next “Urinetown,” its large fan base could give it an extended life — that is if Dr. Lecter doesn’t eat them all, accompanied with a nice Sangiovese. ***
“Silence! The Musical,” extended by popular demand through Saturday, September 24, Theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place (between First and Second avenues). 212-352-3101. $38. Note that performances are only on Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 8 and 10:30 p.m.