Find a stage property worth musicalizing or parodying, and sooner or later someone will get around to giving it the Broadway musical treatment.
In the case of “The Silence of the Lambs,” Jonathan Demme’s intense, often terrifying, Academy Award-winning 1991 suspense thriller, it took just a few years – but the stage version started out at first as simply a handful of parodistic songs before it was eventually expanded into a full-length show.
“Silence! The Musical” debuted in 2006 and got an off-Broadway premiere in 2011. In 2012, the “Unauthorized Parody” (the show’s subtitle) got a limited engagement at the 99-seat Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles, but it has never been produced in Orange County.
The downtown Fullerton storefront STAGEStheatre aptly slotted the show’s Orange County premiere to coincide with the Halloween season, noting in its press release that “no one’s had the guts to bring it to Orange County – until now!”
With music and lyrics by Jon and Al Kaplan and a book by Hunter Bell, “Silence!” follows rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Kalinda Gray in Stages’ production) as she enlists the expertise of the brilliant but insane serial killer, “Hannibal the Cannibal” Lecter (Owen Lovejoy), to help her track down the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill.
The show features a singing chorus of floppy-eared lambs that narrates the action, a gleeful hoedown danced by Buffalo Bill as he kidnaps his latest victim, and a wacky solo by Dr. Lecter about his dream life beyond prison walls.
Stages promotes the show, which broke box-office records at 2006’s FringeNYC festival, as “a laugh-out-loud, smutty, bawdy, raunchy tribute to the iconic movie” that “combines whip-smart dialogue” with “shocking songs.” A heads-up to potential audience members alerts them to the presence of racy jokes, vulgar language, filthy songs, sexual gags and full frontal nudity.
Director Jack Millis remembers sitting in a darkened movie theater with three friends when the movie was first released.
“When the lights came up I knew I had to do three things: see it again, read the novel and find out what fava beans were.”
In 2012, 21 years later, he and Stages colleagues Jon Gaw, Amanda DeMaio and Robert Nunez then trekked up to the Hayworth to see the then-new musical parody for themselves.
Millis said he wanted to direct the show “as soon as the lights came up.” Impressed with “how clever it was,” he immediately set about getting a copy of the cast recording and trying to obtain performance rights for Stages.
It took Millis, Stages’ artistic director DeMaio, Stages’ board president, Patti Cumby, and other board members seven years of “tireless attempts and countless emails” in getting the OK to produce the show and deliver its O.C. premiere, with Cumby’s “tenacity” deserving of the most credit.
Millis praises the way Bell and the Kaplans have avoided allowing the show to “be a one-trick pony, where the joke gets old very quickly.” Other writers, he said, might be content simply to “parody the frightening parts of the film and call it a day” – but here the three creators “worked hard to make the show its own beast.”
Using a total of just eight cast members, Millis said, lets the show “take on another life by allowing the performers to create an array of characters.” Alongside Gray and Lovejoy are Candace Clasby, Anthony Frias, Matt Koutroulis, Cameron Murray, Patrick Nunez and Jennifer Walquist.
The director said he and his cast had fun letting out their playful sides in bringing the show to life. “So often, we’re told to play the ‘reality’ of a scene, saying things like ‘Oh, my character would never do that.’ In ‘Silence!,’ there is nothing your character won’t do.”
Can that most likely minuscule percentage of audience members unfamiliar with the film derive the same satisfaction as its fans? “I won’t lie,” Millis said. “It will add to your enjoyment if you’re familiar with its source.” That being said, strangers to the material “can still enjoy the over-the-top characters and dialogue.”
Musical director Stephen Hulsey said he instantly noticed two places in the parody’s score that quote music from the film: “The main theme used is Clarice’s theme from the movie – it’s virtually in almost every number” of the show’s 15 songs. “Another is just a passing motive from the main title theme that’s used in Lecter’s solo number.”
Hulsey noted that the rehearsal process gave him a chance “to tweak some of the music to help emphasize a bit or comedic moment,” thus accentuating the show’s comical thrust.
Jackie Melbon, the show’s choreographer, likewise utilized rehearsals as a means of discovery: “As we rehearsed, because the show is so silly and over-the-top in its humor, much of the material seemed to work best when the choreography was an organic expression of the characters’ playfulness.”
But, Melbon noted, “some of what I’d originally choreographed didn’t quite work as the project unfolded and as the flavor and feel of the show got sillier and more slapstick – so I course-corrected by allowing the choreography to evolve as we went along, all of us collaborating together.”
Part of her process involves repeated listenings to each song to allow pictures and ideas to form, as well as asking the director “what they want to see or what their vision is of each song.” She’ll work toward that vision, but if the director has nothing specific in mind, she’ll develop the dance contours of each song on her own.
Melbon said the challenge with a parody-style show like “Silence!” is “how much should be choreographed, how much should just be improvised by the actors.” The answers arrived as each rehearsal brought the cast that much closer to opening night.
Millis is no stranger to directing at Stages, having helmed productions of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” “Eating Raoul,” “The House of Yes,” “Next Fall” and “Raised in Captivity.” Hulsey and Melbon have likewise worked on previous productions at the Fullerton storefront, often in collaboration with Millis.
As expected for this time of year, “Silence!” competes with other theater productions geared toward Halloween. That includes Stages’ annual serving of stage versions of the original “Twilight Zone” television series, which runs in repertory with “Silence!”
It’s a sure thing, though, that those other seasonally scary shows won’t prompt patrons to chuckle over the frights being presented on stage as they no doubt will here.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.