A middle-aged man emerges from behind a screen on all fours, wearing fake lamb ears and a set of woolly white arm warmers. Soon, he's joined by a whole flock of “lambs” who serve as the show's chorus from here on out. In angelic harmony, the lambs catch us up with the events of the film (“This is the story of Clarice/ She wants to join the FBI…”) and finally finish crooning, “This is The Silence of the Lambs .”
Of course, this is not the 1991 Oscar-winning thriller as we know it, but rather Silence! The Musical, an affectionate off-Broadway parody directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Back in 2005, Silence! swept the New York International Fringe Festival. Now it's returned on the off-Broadway circuit, playing at Performance Space 122 since October 2011. To begin this review, I will say this. You really have to have Silence of the Lambs fresh on your mind to be able to fully enjoy Silence! The Musical. The show can easily be enjoyed by general audiences (above 16) but its little nods and references are really aimed at those die-hard Hannibal Lecter fans.
Having opted to re-watch the film the day I went to see the show, I was amazed at how much of the film was replicated in Silence!. Little details, down to the cat on the windowsill of Buffalo Bill's latest victim, are reproduced with hilariously shoddy production values. I loved seeing iconic scenes translated onto the stage. In the back-and-forth number “Quid Pro Quo”, Hannibal (David Garrison) and Clarice (Jenn Harris) do an amusing little tango, clutching the glass screen prop between them.
What about the actors? First off, kudos to Jenn Harris for nailing her Jodie Foster impression down to a tee. The actress seamlessly mimics the FBI trainee's constantly determined expression and heavy lisp-laden Midwestern accent, becoming not Clarice Starling but “Clarishe Schtarlin'.” David Garrison (the neighbor from Married With Children) plays the intimidating Hannibal Lecter with the perfect mix of regality, ferocity, and absurdity.
Silence! truly succeeds when it reflects on the silly points of the actual film. Minor characters like Clarice's father are really given a chance to shine. In Silence!, the father becomes a dopey ghost who reassures Clarice with the same hokey lisp he bestowed upon her. Ardelia Mapp (Clarice's black partner from the film, who knew she had a last name?) belts out a song about how she was pushed into the background for the majority of the story but finally gets to shine at the end. In a stunning breakthrough about the killer, Ardelia (played by Ronica V. Reddick with beautiful comedic timing) sings “Goddamn, Clarice!” Additionally, one of my favorite scenes makes a note of the stupidity exhibited by the original Dr. Chilton in the film. Actor Harry Bouvy deliberately taps Hannibal on the head with his golden pen and pushes it in front of him – the same pen the killer will use just moments later to escape from his jail cell.
Now, the jokes in Silence! were mostly spot-on for me. The production's ability to poke fun at its own low budget was hysterical, very much in the vein of Hugh Jackman's opening number for the 2009 Academy Awards. The tag stuck out on Clarice's cheap wig, a dancer very conspicuously clapped together chalkboard erasers to simulate fog, and a huge body pillow served as a corpse in a morgue. These were suspensions of disbelief that only slightly took us out of the main story, but story's not what you look for when you go into a parody like this. At times, the show relied too much on the low-budget jokes, for example, when the actress playing Clarice simply reached her hand around the glass to hand Lecter a questionnaire. The fact that some portions of the show became poor exercises in restraint was really the low point of Silence!.
If I had to describe in one word why some of Silence! fell flat, it would be the word “too.” Too often, the characters depended on the same old schticks, much like a tired MADtv skit that increases the repetition with more audience encouragement. One particular number, “If I Could Smell Her C*nt”, ran for way too long (and that's not me being a prude. I chuckled heartily at the Silly String semen – don't ask). Other jokes were repeated ad nauseam to really drive the point home. Another problem I had with the show was that some aspects of the original Silence of the Lambs were clever enough in and of themselves – there's really little need to tamper with them. Hannibal's iconic line “I'm having an old friend for dinner” is expanded into “And by having an old friend for dinner, I mean I'll be eating him for dinner. Get it? It's a play-on-words.”
In spite of these flaws, I absolutely loved Silence! The Musical . It was a bawdy and irreverent fun time with several laughs a minute. The humor was crude and at times, a bit low-brow, but Silence! is not for those tense and uptight folks. Some of the songs, while forgettable in retrospect, were catchy and upbeat while they lasted and the choreography was incredibly funny and full of energy. Definitely watch the movie beforehand and definitely leave the kids at home. Seriously. I heard a confused boy behind me ask why Buffalo Bill's junk was tucked between his legs. Not a conversation you want to be having during a show.
Watch Silence! The Musical at P.S. 122 today and see what folks have to say about it: