Singing zombies invade Smith Center in ‘Re-Animator’

Consider “Re-Animator” the thing that wouldn’t die.

Not as a movie. And certainly not as “Re-Animator the Musical,” which checks into The Smith Center’s Troesh Studio Theater Tuesday for a 16-performance run.

The show’s Las Vegas debut follows a successful Los Angeles revival (re-animation?) that spanned the Halloween-to-Thanksgiving season.

But our saga begins much earlier in time.

Even earlier than 1985’s “Re-Animator,” a cult movie based on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 tale of a demented scientist who whips up a glowing green serum that brings dead things back to life — with comically horrific, or perhaps horrifically comic, results.

The story really begins in 1970s Chicago, where “Re-Animator” director Stuart Gordon, composer Mark Nutter and actor George Wendt (alias Norm on TV’s long-running “Cheers”) were among the artists testing — make that trashing — the rules of traditional theater.

Wendt was working at Second City, the renowned improvisational comedy troupe.

Gordon was founder and artistic director of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, where he co-created the original “Bleacher Bums” and directed the world premiere of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” (by a promising young playwright named David Mamet), among other productions. (Organic’s acting company included such future stars as Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz; other actors around town at the time include Steppenwolf founder Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, William L. Petersen and Gary Cole.)

And Nutter was a college student who came to Chicago from small-town Illinois, saw the Organic’s sci-fi-meets-Marvel Comics extravaganza “Warp!” — and was immediately struck (or, if you prefer, stricken) by its humor and energy.

“It warped me,” he admits in a telephone interview. “It changed my perspective” of what theater could be.

“What a time that was,” Gordon muses in a separate telephone interview, recalling the freewheeling, art-for-art’s-sake vibe of the ’70s Chicago theater community.

“I’ve always thought that audiences like to be put to work,” Gordon says of his philosophy. “They don’t just want to sit there.”

Or, as Wendt quotes Gordon’s philosophy in a telephone interview, “ ‘Why is theater so boring and movies are so awesome?’ ”

In Wendt’s view, “the Organic brought the action to the stage and I thought that was the coolest thing I ever saw. Except for Second City.”

Wendt and his fellow Second City performers were such big fans that they invited Gordon to direct a Second City satire of his Organic productions: an Organic “Three Little Pigs” parody, complete with “a horrible Big Bad Wolf and lots of blood and guts and entrails,” Wendt remembers.

Some 40 years later, that visceral style characterizes “Re-Animator the Musical,” which comes complete with a front-row “Splash Zone” — where audience members are guaranteed to get splattered by copious amounts of stage blood.

At previous “Re-Animator the Musical” stagings, “Splash Zone” regulars sported white lab coats, bridal gowns, snowy-white tuxedos, “and by the time we’re done, they’re all red,” Gordon says, chuckling. “If it was up to the hard-core fans, they’d like us to flood the theater” with fake blood “and let them swim out.”

But the fake blood proved a key to turning Gordon’s cult movie into a cult stage musical.

That’s because the movie’s effects were all “practical,” achieved without computer-generated trickery. So what effects meisters Tony Doublin, John Naulin and John Beuchler did on screen, they could — and did — bring to the stage.

And when Gordon saw Nutter’s comedic musical “The Bicycle Men,” about a hapless American trapped in France, he realized the composer’s “sensibility was perfect” for re-animating “Re-Animator.”

For his part, Nutter “was thrilled” to collaborate.

“I love horror,” he says, “but comedy has been my thing” — including the thing in “Re-Animator” that he “sparked to.”

It took Gordon and Nutter about three years to transform “Re-Animator” into a musical. And when they say musical, “Re-Animator’s” creators mean it.

With only about 10 minutes of spoken dialogue in the show, “it’s more an operetta,” Gordon says, marveling at how Nutter transformed it “into a musical extravaganza.”

Not that Nutter meant to do it that way.

“I just started musicalizing,” he explains, going “scene by scene” and ending up “with an awful lot of music.”

That music includes a “celebratory” new opening number, titled “The End of Death,” which he added for the show’s most recent L.A. incarnation. (Previous runs have taken “Re-Animator the Musical” from its award-winning L.A. origins to theater festivals in New York and Edinburgh, Scotland.)

Given the original “Re-Animator” movie’s “sly sense of humor,” Wendt says “it makes sense that (Gordon) would turn to somebody who has a kind of twisted, sophisticated sense of humor” like Nutter, whose credits include “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Saturday Night Live.” (Nutter’s working on another musical now, set in a World War II prison camp; naturally, “it’s a comedy,” the composer notes.)

Wendt has been part of “Re-Animator the Musical” since the first readings and workshops four or five years ago, subsequently performing in the original L.A. production as well as the New York and Edinburgh stagings.

He acknowledges that zombies seem to have supplanted vampires as top pop-culture horror figures, but “we were kind of ahead of the curve” when it comes to the “zombie zeitgeist,” Wendt points out. “We’ve been working on this for quite a while.”

Wendt’s character doesn’t start out as a zombie, of course.

He’s Dean Halsey, head of the medical school where Herbert West (played by Graham Skipper, who captured “best new performer” honors at the New York Musical Theater Festival) concocts the strange stuff that sets “Re-Animator” in motion.

Dean Halsey’s daughter Megan (played by Jessica Howell) catches the eye of Herbert’s roommate, med student Dan Cain (Darren Ritchie, whose Broadway credits include the oh-so-appropriate “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Dracula”).

Their romance becomes increasingly complicated, however, especially when Megan’s dad — spoiler alert! — gets “killed, right onstage,” Wendt notes, then is “re-animated” into “quite an angry zombie.” At least until he’s lobotomized by Dr. Carl Hill (Jesse Merlin), who’s lost his head — literally — over Megan.

“I get to sing a song with a headless guy,” Wendt marvels. “It’s just really fun and it’s fun to bring such a clever, peculiar piece to a fresh audience.”

Many of whom, Gordon suspects, wouldn’t know “Re-Animator” from Disney Animation.

“What’s really great about the musical,” he says, is that “the majority of the audience has never seen the movie — which I love, because it means I can reach a whole different group of people.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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