In the 1990 movie comedy, The Tall Guy, Jeff Goldblum played an actor whose big break was playing the lead in a new show called Elephant! The Musical. It was an intentionally dreadful song and dance version of The Elephant Man, a retread of the 1980 drama that starred Anthony Hopkins. It even featured dancing elephants.
It’s unknown whether The Tall Guy was where songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan, or scriptwriter Hunter Bell found their inspiration to write Silence! The Musical, based on the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, also starring Anthony Hopkins – I’m guessing not – but it’s surprising how close the two concepts are in style and humor. It’s not only the abbreviated title with an exclamation point that shares the comedy, it even features dancing animals throughout; in this case, lambs. The major difference, of course, is that in The Tall Guy, the joke of such a dreadful idea for a musical even existing is so jaw-droppingly awful, you wouldn’t expect a production of its ilk to ever really exist. It’s Goldblum’s Springtime for Hitler. Yet where Elephant! The Musical took up around ten minutes of screen time in a ninety minute film, the joke behind Silence! The Musical is the whole ninety minutes.
It helps to have seen the movie. In fact, it’s mandatory. The parody has little to do with the Thomas Harris novel, nor is the Hannibal Lecter character the one portrayed by Brian Cox in Manhunter; this is a flat-out send up of the Jonathan Demme film, where clumps of movie dialog are used, then comically turned around, while the three leads, FBI agent on her first assignment, Clarice Starling, the confined, cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and the transsexual kidnapper and killer of slightly overweight women, Buffalo Bill are direct takes on those who originally played them; Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and Ted Levine.
Much is funny in this Stray Cat Theatre presentation, its final production of the current season. When Clarice (Brandi Bigley) visits Lecter (Scott Schmelder) at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, just like the film, the young FBI agent remarks on Lecter’s paintings of the outside world, except what we’re seeing are stick figures and globs of green circles representing trees. “All that detail,” she remarks with admiration. When Dr. Chilton (Hector Coris) explains to Clarice how she and Lecter will get along, he states, “You’re his taste,” adding, “See what I did there? It’s a pun.” Plus, when Bill’s next victim, Catherine (Cassie Chilton) first enters, she sings a line or two from Tom Petty’s American Girl, the song that was playing on the car radio in the film just before the abduction. The musical doesn’t do anything particularly funny with the song, but its recognition raises a smile.
But what sounds funny on paper and in the conversational telling wears surprisingly thin once the production continues. There are big laughs that initially come from shock value, as when Lecter sings his first number, the obscenely titled If I Could Smell Her C****, but the song itself lacks real wit, or even a melody, for that matter. It’s the audacious and unbelievable level of crass that you’re laughing at. Same with Buffalo Bill’s ode to his perceived attractiveness as a woman, I’d F*** Me. It’s the repetition of extreme profanity that gets young audiences laughing, but it’s a cheap laugh; there’s nothing particularly funny within the song itself.
And there lies the problem with the show. Despite the awards the musical has previously received – it won the 2012 Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for Best Musical Score – the songs aren’t particularly good. They’re the kind of Broadway sounding send-ups the SNL writers would create for a skit, but they’re clearly not the real thing. In Silence! The Musical, none of the songs are the real thing; the joke remains in the title. They’re funny if you find f-bombs and the shock value of the c-word funny by their mere mention, but without the wit of clever lyrics or the hooks of attention-grabbing melodies, they’re hardly comical or musical enough to carry a whole show.
However, director Louis Farber keeps the action moving at an effectively snappy pace, never lingering on a moment to milk a laugh longer than needed, even though the script gives plenty of opportunity to do so. Where some productions around the country record a running time of either 100 minutes, 110 minutes, or even one coming in at 2 hours, Farber’s production is a brisk 90 minutes, and it’s that speed of presentation that makes all the difference.
But the show’s real strength, far more than the thin source material, is Farber’s casting. Backed by those of the dancing lamb chorus who double as all the support characters, Cassie Chilton, Vinny Chavez, Hector Coris, Ayanna Le Andre, and Devon Mahon, plus the dancers of the hilariously obscene dream sequence, Priscilla Campa and Nicholas McEntire, it’s the three leads that elevate matters.
Scott Schmelder’s Hannibal Lecter may have a one-note quality to his sound, but he’s undeniably amusing throughout, having fun with that creepy manner of delivery that is uniquely the voice of the movies’ version of the cracked psychiatrist. More than the profane, it’s when he responds to Clarice’s critique that he’s a scaredy-cat with, “I know you are. But… what… am… I?” in the absurdly comical way that Anthony Hopkins might have said it that makes you laugh.
David Chorley’s Buffalo Bill is so spot on that even though the show is going for the gags, Chorley is creepily effective enough in both looks and movement to be cast as the same character in a straight version of the play.
But at the center is Brandi Bigley’s Clarice Starling. Dressed in a muddied brown suit and wig to match, Bigley’s Clarice is the perfect parallel to Jodie Foster’s movie performance, right down to the voice, the accent, and a hilariously exaggerated lisp where the ‘S’ becomes an ‘Esh.’ Thus, her first big song that should have been titled This Is It becomes Thish Ish It. And the song to her father, Papa Starling, becomes Papa Shtarling. Though the most absurd and funniest use of the impediment comes when Clarice offers Lecter a lighter security prison term in exchange for his cooperation. She quotes a famous tongue twister, telling Lecter that at least once a week he would be able to, “shell she-shells by the she-shore.” It’s Bigley, not the Kaplan songs nor Hunter’s book, that holds it all together.
Silence! The Musical is a Stray Cat Theatre production currently performing at Tempe Center for the Arts until May 19
Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose