Davis Gaines as Hannibal Lecter, front, and Jeff Hiller as Guard in a scene… (Michael Lamont )
Any day now the announcement that "Jaws the Musical" is heading to Broadway will appear in my inbox, ringing the death knell for the commercially desperate American theater. But until that apocalyptic moment, let's savor the revue-style ingenuity of "Silence! The Musical," a singing sendup of that pulpy yet polished 1991 blockbuster "The Silence of the Lambs," winner of a disproportionate number of Academy Awards for a movie in which body parts are there for the filleting.
A cult hit in New York, the show opened Saturday at the Hayworth Theatre in a production that preserves its New York International Fringe Festival roots. This is the kind of theatrical offering that's best appreciated when stumbled upon. A hard sell could set up expectations that the musical's casual, off-color insouciance would have difficulty satisfying.
Like most gags, this one is a bit overstretched. But there's something enjoyably rough-hewn about the production, with its racy, sometimes out-and-out vulgar score by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan that finds in serial killing and cannibalism an occasion for Bob Fosse-inflected razzmatazz. And the madcap cast, directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, certainly gives this lampoon a larky liftoff, even (or should I say especially?) when the show lurches into gross-out mode.
The book, written by Hunter Bell, has been adapted from the Kaplan brothers' unproduced screenplay, and the obsessive fan-boy interest in this Jonathan Demme movie is part of the joke. This is a film that, compulsively watchable as it may be, is unusually susceptible to parody. The story of an FBI rookie, Clarice Starling, who seeks the counsel of a convicted muncher of human flesh, the formidable Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to catch a murderous psychopath known as "Buffalo Bill," "The Silence of the Lambs" is one of those thrillers that, viewed from the wrong angle, can come off as ludicrously camp.
The formula here is rather simple: The more febrile the dialogue, the more outrageous the spoof. Hannibal Lecter's nonchalant recounting of having enjoyed the liver of a census taker with fava beans and a nice Chianti is ripe for the razzing. An obscene remark about Clarice's genitals turns into an elaborate musical number complete with gymnastic dance maneuvers. Awards for dexterous verbal wit aren't forthcoming, but shameless daring is sometimes all that's required to provoke gales of giddy laughter. My own amusement was sharpened by an ensemble that was aware of the ridiculousness of its theatrical enterprise but never wavered in its conviction.
The secret weapon of the production is Christine Lakin, who approaches the role of Clarice with the same Oscar-winning grit and determination as Jodie Foster — which only adds to the zaniness. A member of the Troubadour Theater Company, Lakin acts as though actual human lives are on the line even when she's backed by a chorus of actors dressed like lambs (a frequent occurrence).
Davis Gaines' Hannibal Lecter isn't half as interesting as Anthony Hopkins' portrayal, but then it's not a fair contest: Only Hopkins can out-do Hopkins. Stephen Bienskie as Buffalo Bill, likewise, has difficulty caricaturing a character that's already flamboyantly nutty.
More memorable are Jeff Hiller, a New York veteran of "Silence!," who wields his gawky build with clownish élan in an assortment of supporting roles that the actor can't help peeking through, La Toya London as an FBI co-worker with a not-so-subtle lesbian interest in Clarice and Kathy Deitch as a squawking victim of Buffalo Bill's grisly fetish for zaftig female figures.
Musically, the show wants only to get a rise out of the audience. Silliness is the name of the game, and there's a slapdash quality to the proceedings that, were it not so openly embraced, might seem amateurish. Instead, the buffoonery (although a tad prolonged) seems almost artful.
'SILENCE! The Musical'
Where: Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays- -Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Contact: http://www.silencethemusical.com or (866) 811-4111
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes