By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Science Fiction, meet Musical Comedy, New Line Theatre-style, with a touch of Midnight Movie Madness.
Artistic Director Scott Miller co-directs musicals with Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and has certainly proven over the years that he beats to a different drummer. Hence, this calling card — an original and clever “The Zombies of Penzance,” where he makes the walking dead kick in a chorus line and put moves on sheltered single ladies.
These silly components make this quirky world premiere a dip into Monty Python territory. Miller has substituted singing and dancing zombies for musical comedy pirate characters, using the same structure of Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, which makes it funnier. It may be one-joke, but it’s laugh-out-loud fun.

Turns out zombies have personalities in sync with pirates! Stranger things have happened, so just go with it, and enjoy the playful spirit. I mean, songs have titles like “Eat Their Flesh,” “Poor Walking Dead,” and “Hail, Zombies!” We can’t be serious, no matter how straight the characters play their predicaments.
The 1879 comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance,” by the British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, was given new life in a Joseph Papp 1981 revival that won Kevin Kline the Tony as the swashbuckling Pirate King. It spawned many imitations and parodies, and a 1983 feature film. Here, you think of both those cartoonish roles and the roaming zombies that rule movie and TV screens, particularly this time of year.
The flimsy 19th century plot should be played for laughs – Frederic, 21, is released from his apprenticeship from tender-hearted pirates, but a technicality – he is a Leap Day baby — means he must serve another 63 years, but his true-love Mabel agrees to wait. We’re not talking “The Great Gatsby” level tragic romance.
Now, New Line has rewired the “Slave of Duty” to be a fresh zombie! Frederic is a new flesh eater, a pawn in the other zombie maneuvers as they aim their mark on Major-General Stanley and his nubile brood.
Let the wackiness ensue with Miller’s smart book and quick-witted lyrics, using Gilbert’s template. Listen carefully for laugh-out-loud humor, utilizing contemporary snarkiness.
St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes reconstructed Sullivan’s music, and it’s a mighty fine re-working. In music director Nicolas Valdez’s capable hands, he conducts a snazzy nine-piece band, including Gerdes on French horn, Lea Gerdes on reeds, Joseph Hendricks on bassoon, Emily Trista Lane on cello, Twinda Murry on violin and Kely Austermann/Hope Walker on reeds. Valdez is on keyboards. Their efforts are exquisite – love those strings!
Dowdy-Windsor, an oft-nominated director with Miller for St. Louis Theater Circle Awards (and winner for “Bonnie & Clyde”), also has a keen eye and sharp attention to detail.
The pair has moved the cast around – you hear the flesh-eaters before the heavily made-up zombies shamble through the audience to the Stanley home. Yet, this is not intended to be slick staging, but a motley crew invasion with a rag-tag feel.
Those dastardly decaying dudes have their eyes on Stanley’s bevy of beauties. However, Major-General Stanley, who professes to be a zombie, is actually a great zombie hunter.
Zak Farmer is as sharp as ever as the fearless father, but what stands out is his impeccable delivery of the difficult songs, particularly the often parodied “Major-General’s Song,” which is now “Modern Era Zombie Killer,” and “When the World Went Bad.” His impressive performance indicates how deceptively hard farcical fun is.
The charade will be up soon enough, but in the meantime, romantic entanglements are on the minds of those frisky young ones, who wish they were not at a disadvantage.
Dominic Dowdy-WindsorWith his strong voice, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor delivers superb vocals as the Zombie King, including the solo “Oh Better Far, to Live as Dead,” and his many duets and company numbers. Given the confines of the part, he can’t swashbuckle like the role model Pirate King, and I wish he could have more swagger.
Sean Michael and Melissa FelpsSean Michael, as the dullard Frederic, and Melissa Felps, as a rather colorless Mabel, are saddled with a drippy romance that’s the show’s centerpiece. Voices are fine and so is their earnestness, but those roles remain insipid. Their lack of chemistry doesn’t help either. (The 1981 revival starred Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt).
So, the supporting cast’s efforts enliven the puffy piece.
The ladies play the giggly girly magnets up to a point, then reveal they’re no helpless ingenues. That’s a nice twist.
With Lindsay Jones as Kate, Christina Rios as Edith, Kimi Short as Isabel and Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak and Sarah Porter as other daughters, you knew they weren’t going to be powder puffs, but amp up their grrrl power. Armed already with gorgeous voices, they are demure to a point, but then turn into warrior princesses.
Kent Coffel goes all in as Zombie Sam, playing everything for laughs – and he’s a delight. Other goofy zombies Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Tim Kaniecki and Kyle Kelesoma physically turn into animated creatures.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert paid homage to George A. Romero, director of the 1968 cult classic, “The Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of zombie lore,  in his ornate home interior, a cool touch. The set has the period look, but also a show within a show accents.
Costume designer Sarah Porter has outfitted everyone in appropriate garb for the tonal shifts — the frilly feminine dresses and petticoats for the girls and the natty Zombie attire for the guys. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design emphasizes the bewitching tone while Ryan Day’s sound work makes all those fast-paced lyrics easily understood.
These zombies might not terrify, after all, but they certainly provide a fun, frothy look in a lighter vein — at both vintage opera and the horror archetypes who proliferate this time of year. Barbara, they are coming — only armed with songs, dances and feelings.
One can’t resist the pull of brainy and talented people who set out for a road not taken before.
“The Zombies of Penzance” is presented by New Line Theatre Sept. 27 – Oct. 20, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Arts Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com and for tickets, call 314-534-1111 or go to MetroTix.com
Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg
 

Chiropractor-Turned-Playwright Strikes a Chord with Romantic Comedy
By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Actor-playwright Michael Madden could be called a late bloomer.  He did not start acting until five years ago. Two years ago, he wrote his first play, and people like it – a lot. “Maybe This Time” won an audience award in San Diego and sold out every performance last month in St. Louis.
The native of St. John, Mo., discovered that his own online dating experiences was a rich source of material. In 2016, “Maybe This Time” won an audience award at the San Diego Fringe Festival.
That encouragement started an interesting and exciting journey. Family suggested he bring the play to St. Louis, and arrangements were finalized with a local director and cast at The Gaslight Theatre Aug. 17-19.
The 90-minute play is about four online dates with good, bad, humorous and sad results.  You not only see and hear two people on a blind date, but you also see and hear what their brains are thinking. It shows how miscommunication and misunderstanding can lead to unexpected and unwarranted consequences.
Directed by Pamela Reckamp, the cast included Mara Bollini, George Doerr IV, Carrie Priesmeyer, Paul James, Tonya Darabcsek and Todd Micali.
In these characters he has created, Madden wants people to be entertained, moved, laugh and perhaps recognized themselves. He figures that nearly all adults have dated at some point in their lives, whether it’s been online or not, they can still relate.
“I think it struck a chord with people because everyone has been on a date before. And the play isn’t so much about online dating as dating itself. The reason people respond the most though, I believe, is that it’s a pretty unique idea to have the character’s brains on stage too. Hearing what people are thinking and then seeing what they say is very interesting,” he said.
And his online experience ultimately had a happy ending. Giving it one more shot, he met someone very special on Match.com.
“I saw this winsome blonde, and she was wearing a St. Louis Cardinals sweatshirt. We both live in San Diego. I found the love of my life,” he said about wife Ann (maiden name Siemer). “And she grew up in Florissant — went to Sacred Heart.”
He hopes his play about the pains, passions and possibilities of online dating as performers take you through the process and results will be seen by more people.
The reception was so positive in St. Louis, it opened doors – and his eyes, too.
“I realized that the show can travel with or without me,” Madden said. “I had directed all the previous performances and was worried that it would be a lot different. But I think the show’s bones are strong enough to support it being anywhere. The reception for every performance was loud and enthusiastic with a lot of laughter,” he said.
A small theater company in Washington state plans to do it next spring.
“Anyone can license it out for royalties. Not sure I’m bringing it back to St. Louis again, although if someone else wanted to do it, that would be fine. Producing it from California was very logistically challenging,” he said.
But he enjoyed his time visiting family and friends. A graduate of McBride High School, he did not do theater in school, but his parents, Bill and Marie Madden, were professional performers.
“They headed a group called Old-Time Vaudeville Troupe and then had a company called Banjo and Bus, where they took busloads of mostly seniors all over the U.S. while they entertained them on board with music, sing-a-longs, movies and games,” he said.
“My parents performed for the public for 50 years and my sister has been a working actor in New York and L.A. for 50 years also. So there’s a lot of this in my blood. I did a lot of lectures and speaking before I started acting five years ago as well,” he said.
Now it’s on to the next chapter, and back ensconced in California. Although he says: “St. Louis will always feel like home.”
The St. Louis cast of “Maybe This Time” with playwright Michael Madden (center): From left, Tara Darabcsek, Mara Bollini, Carrie Priesmeyer, Paul James, Todd Micali and George Doerr IV. (Photo provided)Here is our Q&A with Michael Madden:
1.Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I was forced to retire from the chiropractic profession after a car accident in 1999. Since then I’ve done a variety of things, from producing the San Diego Blues Festival to buying and selling precious gems in Asia. I started acting about five years ago and writing and directing two years ago. My sister has been a working actor in NYC and LA for 50 years and my parents performed in public for decades.”
How would your friends describe you?“Loud but sensitive, irreverent but thoughtful, with many interests and passions.”
How do you like to spend your spare time?“Writing, reading, dancing, poker and dinner parties with family and friends.”
What is your current obsession? “Spoken Word like ‘The Moth Project’ and ‘The Narrators.’”
What would people be surprised to find out about you?“I worked in a leper colony in Venezuela and was a contestant on ‘Jeopardy!’”
Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?“The births of my two incredible daughters.”
Who do you admire most?“Anyone that is doing what they like and making a living at it.”
What is at the top of on your bucket list? “Getting interviewed.”
What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis? “Visit the Missouri Botanical Garden.”
What’s next? “Hopefully another play.”
MORE ABOUT MICHAEL MADDENAge: 69Birthplace: St. LouisCurrent Location: San DiegoFamily: Wife Ann and daughters Ashley and CaseyEducation: B.A, in Psychology, UMSL; Doctor of Chiropractic, Logan CollegeDay Job: RetiredFirst Job: Slaving under my parents’ idea of what constituted a work ethicFavorite Role: Moss in “Body of Water” by Lee BlessingDream Role: Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”Awards/Honors/Achievements: Best Actor Nomination SD Aubrey Awards “Body of Water”/Audience Award 2016 SD Fringe Festival for “Maybe This Time”Favorite Quote/Words to Live By: “You don’t always get what you want and you rarely get what you deserve but you almost always get what you think you deserve. If you think you deserve hardship and garbage, you will often get that and conversely, if you think you deserve joy and abundance, you will often get joy and abundance.”A Song That Makes You Happy: “When You Wish Upon a Star”