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Silence! The Musical - Ingenious Parody of a Big Budget Cult Film? Nirvana for Twisted Theatre Fans? Or Both?

July 11, 2012 - by Griffin Miller, Theatre Editor
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How often does the opportunity to swan dive into a theatrical rabbit hole chock full of humanoid sheep come along? Seriously. Weird, for sure (gimme a “ewe!”)—but irresistible nonetheless, particularly once you realize the shearlings in question make up a hooved Greek chorus that gleefully sings of “Homicidal freaks, lunatics behind steel bars, women missing skin” and “decapitated heads in jars.” Sweet.

I give you Silence! The Musical, a tuneful romp through the whackadoodle psyches of two serial killers (Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter and Jamie “Buffalo Bill” Gumb), and the rookie FBI agent, Clarice “haunted by memories of her deceased papa” Starling, determined to ace her first official assignment: poking at incarcerated Lecter’s mind to harvest insight in to Buffalo Bill, currently at large.

The déjà vu you’re experiencing comes from repeat viewings of the 1990 Jonathan Demme thriller Silence of the Lambs that starred Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. But the stage musical, i.e., the “unauthorized parody” penned by Hunter Bell ([title of show]) with music and lyrics by Jon and Al Kaplan, is an entity unto itself: hilarious, profane, filthy and low budget-chic that manages to be just as haunting (albeit haunting laced with loopy) as the flick. Much of the credit goes to the show’s resourceful direction and uninhibited cast, led by Jenn Harris as Clarice.

For Harris, a Midwesterner who grew up dealing with the sticky angst of a Catholic school education, the ability to balance her background with her comedic core came from her parents. “They were super young when they had us and their humor grew up with us,” she says, adding that it was her father who suggested she jettison her plans to study medicine to study theatre at Boston University.

Still, as she inched her way up the professional ladder, Harris was pretty much ensconced in character roles. Being a leading lady was not in her cards until 2005’s New York International Fringe Festival, when she was cast as Clarice. Suddenly, the floodgates of lunatic divadom opened to her and she hasn’t looked back. (FYI: Original FringeNYC cast members David Garrison (Lecter) and Stephen Bienski (Buffalo Bill) are still with the show.)

As for the script/show, Harris notes that it is always in flux due to improvised moments, inevitable mishaps (bargain basement scenery, costumes, and wigs are prime offenders), and cast substitutions. While Garrison was on vacation, for example, Tony winner Shuler Hensley played Lecter. And, if you happen to catch the show on a night without Ashlee Dupre -- the professional dancer who plays “Dream Clarice” -- you’ll be treated to Harris performing the ballet. “Yes, I’m the understudy, but when I do it, it’s definitely more ironic,” says Harris, who admits that while she isn’t a trained dancer per se, she is flexible in a sports-yoga sort of way and can dance. “Fortunately, the man, the ‘Dream Hannibal,’ does all the work,” she adds.

Harris researched her role by watching the movie “over and over” until the most distinctive aspects of Clarice hit her: “Her forced West Virginia accents, the way she slurred her ‘S’s’, and the intensity of her eyes in Demme’s close-ups.” And, should you need a memory jog before seeing the musical, she suggests checking out the film will help maximize your parody pleasure.

But if you just want a refresher course, here’s a bare bones (pun intended) synopsis from the website: “…Starling matches wits with the brilliant but insane… Lecter in order to catch the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Clarice faces her own demons while racing the clock to unlock Lecter’s clues before another innocent girl is killed and skinned by Buffalo Bill.”

Concludes Harris re: the cheap allure of the Off-Broadway cult production: “Moving a piece of scenery by hand will always be funnier than using computer automation. Plus, $30 vs. $200 for a Broadway seat -- no comparison when the end result is the funniest show in town.”

Silence! The Musical is playing at the brand-new Elektra Theatre in the heart of Times Square at 673 Eighth Ave. at 42nd St. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

Photos: Carol Rosegg

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