Every so often, a show comes along that makes me wish I had been more sensitive with the hyperboles about productions I’ve seen. “Suchandsuch was GENIUS,” “A brilliant production,” “Expert timing/skill/concept.” Such a show is Silence! The Musical, currently running at Studio Theatre 2ndstage.
Let me set the scene: I’m running late to Studio for this performance, sweating through congested traffic on 16th Street, finding Logan Circle area parking. Sprinting up three flights of stairs, I hear music inside Stage 4. Oh no, I think. I’ve missed the beginning!
Actually, upon crossing the threshold into Stage 4, I find myself amidst cabaret tables, in view of a full bar, and seated just beside a runway planked stage emerging from a gaudy gold proscenium with a red curtain and surrounded in chaser lights (Jason Sherwood is the scenic designer). On the table, fried fava beans (I’m kicking myself for not ordering a nice Chianti from the bar). Adorning the walls are stills and posters for the iconic 1991 Academy Award-winning thriller “The Silence of the Lambs.” A sign by the stage promises the Quantico Community Players will be debuting their new musical version of the classic film.
It sets in clearly, even before the devoted director (Tom Story) emerges for his pre-show speech: we’re in a found space (possibly a strip club), about to watch a very professional group of talent play a community theatre troupe doing a terrible adaptation of a great movie, a greatest-hits parade of iconic moments from the film, goofy interpretations, and cheap-but-that’s-ok-because-we’re-trying-to-look-cheap theatre.
Really, it has all the makings of an epically disastrous evening of theatre.
What follows, though, actually manages to be so funny that it, appropriately enough, silences any worry about falling into high camp, as Silence! The Musical manages to be a genuinely great evening of theatre.
This is where my regrets about hyperbole come into play. The fact that this works, not just at all, but as extraordinarily well as it does, is a testament to the expertise of everyone involved, from the writing to the composition to the direction to the design to the principle performers and into the ensemble members with only single lines.
Starting with the piece itself, book writer Hunter Bell (famously of [title of show]) walks a perfect tightrope of tone. It’s a musical based on a movie about serial killers and violence towards women, so he, along with composers Jon and Al Kaplan, have geared the comedic point of view towards send-up of the pop culture phenomenon of the movie (the lines we love to quote, the grotesqueries, goofy character choices), to delightful effect.
Not-quite-Agent-yet Clarice Starling (Laura Jordan) is literally haunted by a chorus of singing and tap-dancing lambs, and speaks with a fun-house mirror version of Jodie Foster’s lisping accent from the movie. Iconic double-entendres from the film get undercut by characters over-explaining how clever they are. Minor character Ardelia (a game and gleeful Awa Sal Secka) revels in a subplot explaining her character’s deepest motivations. Scenes in the movie peppered with fat-shaming are here punctuated with actual “She’s so fat…” jokes.
Director Alan Paul has done great musical comedy work before with Shakespeare Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but this is on a whole ‘nother level. An ace framing concept of the community players adds a terrific extra layer to the slipshod aesthetic, allowing his performers to swing for the fences in their choices, and his designers to do witty work that can flex between faithful homages to the movie and earnestly tacky.
A good example: Sherwood’s detailed recreation of Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s (Tally Sessions) cell, which is an attractively designed movable cart with authentic looking glass…adorned with childish crayon drawings of perverted imagery, to replace the stunning sketches from the film. Or his dressing table of Buffalo Bill (Tom Story), which is guaranteed to ruin the next time you watch “A Little More Mascara” in La Cage Aux Folles.
Other design highlights: Andrew Cissna’s clever recreation of a pair of wobbly spotlights to ballyhoo at the opening of the play and his eager chaser bulbs add fun grace notes to his otherwise seamlessly integrated lighting design, and Frank Labovitz’s bejeweled lamb hooves join the world’s most most inappropriate homage to the Singin’ in the Rain dream ballet (yes, there is a dream ballet) among the memorable costuming moments. Lane Elms punctuates the whole thing with a great sound mix for the singers and pit, along with a cadre of appropriately wacky sound effects.
Christopher Youstra, as music director, and Jessica Beth Redish, as choreographer, milk every opportunity for parody in the already prone-to-such score, including specific homages to Chicago, The King and I, the aforementioned Singin’ in the Rain, and numerous other tropes of the form more generally. That all this is accomplished with not only huge laughs, but also sincere skill (the singing and dancing are stunning) is no small feat. Unless the singing and dancing is being done by the lambs, in which case there are numerous small feet (…sorry).
Speaking of great singing and dancing, what a cast assembled here! Essentially they function as an ensemble playing all of the myriad roles in the story, with only Jordan and Sessions appearing exclusively in their single roles. Even Story does a bit of doubling, as not only serial killer Buffalo Bill (with a spot-on riff on Ted Levine’s iconic voice), but a handless side character, responsible for one of the funniest runs of juvenile-but-oh-so-funny gags in the entire show.
Sessions, meanwhile…well, you don’t hear baritone voices like that every day. As soon as he opened his mouth to sing his signature ballad (whose title I dare not write in this review), I thought to myself, “that guy’s been on Broadway.” Sure enough, I was correct. It’s a gorgeously sung Lecter, complemented but his dry-as-a-bone deliveries and probing monologues.
Jordan, as Clarice, is the show’s anchor and ringleader. Watching her is the surest way to appreciate the pure skill involved with this show, as she belts, kick-ball-changes, and clowns her way through a masterfully (again, not a hyberbole) styled performance. Grimly visaged, horisontally lisped, wildly improvised (at points, and oh so fun to be able to spot them), and timed to a tee, Jordan is creating Kabuki Clarice, if ever you were curious about such a thing, and it is an honest-to-God pleasure.
The ensemble is up to the task of keeping up with her, too, with nary a cast member dropping the ball or letting the wild energy sag. Sal Secka turns every subtext laced line and gesture into a giant laugh, John Loughney has a ball bouncing between multiple roles (sometimes in record time), and Hayley Travers unleashes a huge voice to accompany her huge character choices in her mother and daughter combo.
SILENCE! The Musical
EXTENDED! July 15 – August 23
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
Tickets: $20 – $45
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 202.332.3300
Honestly, it’s taking an awful lot of effort for me to keep this review from turning into one of those lame “this was good, and that was good, and he was so funny, and that was amazing” thesaurus reviews, and the truth is, so much of Silence! The Musical’s power lays in its ability to surprise you.
So I will leave you with a simple recommendation. This show – deeply crude, wildly perverse, full of foul language and references to every body part you never want to mention in mixed company – is certainly not for the faint of heart. If you can handle all that, though, this is the funniest show you will see on a stage in Washington, DC, brilliantly crafted, and a celebration of comic talent in every theatrical discipline.
Even knowledge of “Silence of the Lambs” isn’t a barrier for entry, as a patron seated at my table who hadn’t seen the film was laughing with just as much abandon as me.
That this is the last piece to arrive under the banner of “Studio Theatre 2ndstage” feels bittersweet, and yet I can’t think of a higher note on which to retire the brand.
Silence! The Musical . Music and Lyrics by Jon and Al Kaplan . Book by Hunter Bell . Directed by Alan Paul . Featuring Tally Sessions, Laura Jordan, Tom Story, Awa Sal Secka, Hayley Travers, John Patrick Loughney, Alan Naylor, Mackenzie Newbury, Van Meter and Neil Rushnock . Music director: Christopher Youstra . Choreographer: Jessica Redish . Set designer: Jason Sherwood . Costume designer: Frank Labovitz . Lighting designer: Andrew Cissna . Sound designer: Lane Elms . Stage Manager: Allie Roy . Produced by Studio Theatre 2ndStage . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.