Song of the Living Dead is set in an apocalyptic world overrun by the walking dead, but it couldn't feel more alive. The zombies aren't one-note automatons, snailing across the blood-spattered stage at the Promethean Theatre with arms outstretched in one direction. These are not your grandmother's zombies, and they're not even the more sophisticated undead that populated postmodern movies until the vampires stole their thunder. Here, they dress up and join chorus lines. They have wit, personality, and self-awareness. They can still spit out only one recognizable word — "brains!" — but they have complex inner thoughts, projected, Annie Hall-style, onto a screen as they grunt to one another.
The story that frames them, about a ragtag band of antagonistic humans uniting against the advances of the walking dead, is fairly inconsequential, the stuff of cocktail-napkin brainstorming. But the genius is in the details. There's nothing familiar about the zombie's jazz-handed movements or the way they tend to provide blood-spurting codas to seemingly benign, zombieless scenes. There's nothing routine about the number of demographic-specific pop-culture references, from Lord of the Rings to Mortal Kombat to Street Fighter and others. And there's nothing pedestrian about a zombie fetus emerging from his undead mother's birth canal.
Playwrights Matt Horgan and Travis Sharp manage to marry conservative choreography with songs bursting with raunch — and that's before you get around to "Why Are You Cornholing Me, Jesus?" And the Promethean may be the only company in South Florida that could have pulled it off. Director Margaret Ledford and Producing Artistic Director Deborah L. Sherman have become veterans of exactly this brand of bloody, pop-smart, youthcentric musical theater for people who don't like musicals. Their Song of the Living Dead proceeds with seeming effortlessness and copious amounts of red paint and TLC. This is one of those rare, miraculous shows that gets everything right, from the minimal, multipurpose set design to the endless parade of inventive costumes to the smallest prop minutiae and the immediacy of the music — a live band, a first for the Promethean.
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Then there's the splash zone, familiar to patrons of Promethean splatter musicals: Audience members in the first row should arrive prepared to absorb much of the blood that gushes like a BP oil rig from the bullet wounds and stabbed orifices that befall the more unfortunate characters.
The show is performed by a cast that couldn't be more attuned to the exaggerated zombie-movie archetypes they portray. Christopher A. Kent and Lindsey Elizabeth Forgey are George and Judith, young, square lovebirds. Clay Cartland is a scene-stealing dynamo as Harry Hardman, a maniacal, sex-addicted corporate CEO smitten with ex-flame Judith. We first see him in an absurdly oversized pinstriped jacket — echoing David Byrne in Stop Making Sense — and later in full Vietnam regalia and Schwarzeneggerian musculature, attempting to win back Judith by mowing down zombies and relating his bedroom potency.
As Rev. Seabrook, who leads a hilarious ministry of intolerance — "The Lord God Hates Them All" is his introductory song — Noah Levine is the cast's most natural comedian, generating laughs with facial expressions alone. Mark Della Ventura is hilarious in three roles, the best of which is a gay crime-fighting Orthodox Jew, and Jaimie Kautzmann is an arresting supporting player who resembles a tween Rachel Maddow in her signature role as a zombie kid.
These characters eventually converge, winding their way through one inspired, outrageous set piece after another and belting out some 17 songs along the way. The song list is not included in the Promethean's program so as to protect the element of surprise. Indeed, Song of the Living Dead is a show best approached with little knowledge of the story — just go and witness a flawless ensemble overtaken with the sheer joy of performing.