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Theatre in Review: Silence! The Musical (Theatre 80)

Sometimes, a star is hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered. Consider the case of Jenn Harris. She's turned up in a number of well-received Off Broadway productions, and, I assume, has gotten her fair share of praise -- but nobody seems to have noticed that there was a major new clown in our midst. Now that Silence! The Musical has opened, the secret is out.

Cast as Clarice Starling, the Jodie Foster role, in this parody of the classic film thriller The Silence of the Lambs, Harris deadpans her way through two hours of rude, crude, ribald gagging. Faced with the most ludicrous situations and subject to unspeakable indignities -- an encounter with a jailed pervert is an indescribable exercise in X-rated humor -- she stares it all down with the blank, nonplussed demeanor of a female Jack Webb eyeballing a particularly shady suspect. It's not just that Harris has nailed Foster's line readings -- including, wickedly, her Chesapeake Bay accent and sibilant S -- or that, aided by the costume designer, David Kaley, she looks like a Mad magazine caricature of Foster. It's the actress' unswerving dedication to her nutball art; she treats the silliest possible material with the seriousness of someone tackling her first lead at Shakespeare in the Park. Thanks to her, even the weakest gag yields big time laughs.

From the moment Harris enters, jogging across the stage, it's clear that every line, every gesture will be delivered with the solemn, Oscar-baiting intensity of the film. Visiting the psychotic Hannibal Lecter in prison, she tries to hand him some documents through a communicating drawer; when it fails to open, she slips him the papers by furtively stepping around the side of his extremely skimpy jailhouse set. When an autopsy turns into an occasion for a series of crass how-fat-is-she jokes, she underplays the routine into total hilarity. And if, during a life-or-death chase scene, she is asked to slip into a bit of "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line, she does it while retaining her considerable sang-froid. Clearly, Jenn Harris is a comedienne to cherish.

It's Harris' good luck that she is partnered with Brent Barrett as the evil Dr. Lecter. In addition to his spot-on imitation of Anthony Hopkins' mournful, measured speaking voice, Barrett matches Harris, grimace for grimace, lending his Broadway-leading-man voice to some pretty squirrely musical numbers. This is not only the kind of show that features a big ballad titled "If I Could Smell Her C--t"; it also comes with a dream ballet acting out the title à la Agnes DeMille.

If, having read this, you're not taking too kindly to the idea of a musical spoof of The Silence of the Lambs, neither was I - it's fair to say that I attended in an advanced state of dread. Yet only a few seconds in, I found myself laughing -- even if I occasionally hated myself for doing so. Anyway, resistance is futile; Silence! is nothing more or less than a two-act Carol Burnett-style movie spoof, filtered through a very dirty mind. Oddly, the most tasteless jokes are rendered in such cartoonish fashion that they rarely offend.

Still, there's no use pretending that Silence! is any kind of masterpiece. The score, by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan, is an extremely hit-or-miss affair; aside from the unmentionable ballad referred to above and the tone-setting title tune, most of the numbers are one-joke affairs that serve more as filler than anything else. Rather better is Hunter Bell's book, which keeps the gags coming thick and fast, even if he shows little interest in separating out the good from the bad.

The weakest part of Silence! involves Buffalo Bill, the serial killer who is the object of Clarice's manhunt. Perhaps because the character is a fairly shadowy presence in the film, or perhaps because his activities are so grisly, the authors have no idea what to do with him, and each of his three big numbers largely fall flat. (This is not the fault of Stephen Bienskie, who gives it all he's got, skillfully aping the mannerisms of Ted Levine, who created the role in the film.) Also, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that it might not be necessary to spoof every single moment of the film, which helps to explain why the action drags in the last half hour or so.

Nevertheless, under Christopher Gattelli's crack direction (he also choreographed, wittily), a nimble, inventive cast works wonders with weak material and makes the good stuff seem even better than it is. Harry Bouvy is supremely sleazy as Hannibal's keeper, who can't stop hitting on Clarice. Deidre Goodwin appears mysteriously underused until the moment in Act II when she informs us that she's fed up with having so little to do and is taking charge of the next production number. Jeff Hiller scores in a variety of roles, including one of Lecter's prison mates, an unctuous newscaster, and the police sergeant who is unluckily given the job of transporting Lecter.

This production started out at the New York International Fringe Festival and the design retains a certain intentionally ragged feel. Scott Pask's set consists mostly of four movable panels made up of swatches of cloth sewn together (a nod to Buffalo Bill's rather more sinister sewing activities), plus a couple of desks and prison bars. Jeff Croiter's lighting adds some welcome splashes of color on the upstage wall. Richard H. Di Bella's amusing projections - a series of locations typed out on the set capture the style of the film. Kaley's costumes include a full set of sheep's outfits for the chorus. Carl Casella's sound design keeps the lyrics intelligible without blasting our eardrums.

Silence! The Musical isn't going to change the course of musical theatre, but it is loaded with talented people-- and what would a season be without a spoofy, guilty-pleasure Off Broadway musical parody? Get a group, have a couple of drinks, go to the late show, and enjoy -- and check out Jenn Harris before she moves on to bigger and better things.--David Barbour

(12 July 2011)

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