“Head Over Heels” will open at New Line Theatre March 6. It is the regional premiere of the wild, sexy, modern musical fairy tale where Once Upon a Time is now.

“Head Over Heels” is the bold new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening.

Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go’s, this high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.”

The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction, only to discover the key to their realm’s survival lies within each of their own hearts — though not always in the way they expect — and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times.

With band and vocal arrangements by Broadway composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then, High Fidelity), and eleven amazing dance numbers, choreographed by New Liners Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, this is the heaviest dance show New Line has produced since Chicago in 2002.

Head Over Heels originally premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then opened on Broadway in 2018. The show was nominated for Best Musical by the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The New Line cast includes Grace Langford (Princess Pamela), Melissa Felps (Princess Philoclea), Clayton Humburg (Musidorus), Jaclyn Amber (Mopsa), Zachary Allen Farmer (King Basilius), Carrie Priesmeyer (Queen Gynecia), Aaron Allen (Dametas), Tiélere Cheatem (Pythio), Kevin Corpuz, Evan Fornachon, Chris Kernan, Chris Moore, Maggie Nold, Michelle Sauer, Alyssa Wolf, and Sara Rae Womack.

The New Line production will be directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, with music direction by Nicolas Valdez, choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, scenic design by Rob Lippert, costume design by Sarah Porter, lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl, and sound design by Ryan Day.

The Daily Beast said, “Head Over Heels is a raucously choreographed joy — intelligent, winningly comic, and surprisingly-for-Broadway radical when it comes to its presentation of gender and sexuality.” Entertainment Weekly said, “The show is an ode to female independence with the winking spirit of a Shakespearean fairy and the neon edge of a rebellious ‘80s teenager, teaming up to beckon people into the woods. Forty years after The Go-Go’s’ formation, Head Over Heels does more than preserve the band’s iconic hits in amber. For two hours and 15 minutes, it’s enough to pull the world back into sync.”

TimeOut NY said, “It grafts a 2010s sensibility onto songs from the 1980s — by the all-girl pop-punk quintet the Go-Go’s (plus two hits from lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s solo career) — and fits them into a 16th-century story that is set in ancient Greece. . . Head Over Heels is a fantasy and celebration of nonconformity, and it puts its casting where its mouth is with an ensemble that is diverse in race, gender and size. Honoring the beat, in this merry Arcadia, means making room for different drummers.”

Head Over Heels contains adult content. Produced by arrangement with Broadway Licensing, New York.

Tickets

HEAD OVER HEELS runs March 5-28, 2020, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, all at 8:00 p.m., at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand, in the Grand Center Arts District. March 5 is a preview.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on Thursdays; and $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors on Fridays and Saturdays. To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website

DISCOUNTS

HIGH SCHOOL DISCOUNT: Any high school student with a valid school ID can get a $10 ticket for any performance, with the code word, posted only on New Line’s Facebook page.

COLLEGE FREE SEATS: Ten free seats for every performance, open to any college student with a valid student ID.

EDUCATORS DISCOUNT: New Line offers all currently employed educators half price tickets on any Thursday night, with work ID or other proof of employment.

MILITARY DISCOUNT: New Line offers all active duty military personnel half price tickets on any Thursday night, with ID or other proof of active duty status.

All offers not valid in connection with other discounts or offers, available only at the door, and subject to availability.

The New Line Film Series

Have a Little Rock & Roll Fable with your Rock & Roll Fable…

The New Line Film Series presents the movie musical ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS on Weds, March 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, during the run of New Line’s Head Over Heels.

Click Here for more info.

About New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is a professional company dedicated to involving the people of the St. Louis region in the exploration and creation of daring, provocative, socially and politically relevant works of musical theatre. New Line was created back in 1991 at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre just starting to take hold across the country.

New Line has given birth to several world premiere musicals over the years and has brought back to life several shows that were not well served by their original New York productions.

Altogether, New Line has produced 89 musicals since 1991, and the company has been given its own entry in the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and the annual Theater World. New Line receives funding from the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and the Regional Arts Commission.

For other information, visit New Line Theatre’s full-service website at www.newlinetheatre.com. All programs are subject to change. New Line’s 29th season closes in June with Urinetown.

By Lynn Venhaus

Wow. Just a WOW.
Dynamic Debby Lennon has a beautifully trained voice that is spellbinding, and even better on stage when she is playing a character. She is a terrific storyteller, which is why she’s often the centerpiece in recent revelatory shows by Max and Louie Productions.

“Songs for Nobodies” showcases both those talents in a warm, endearing way. On a simple set, wearing a nondescript black dress, Lennon vividly creates a genuine connection between the audience and the stars.

Lennon smoothly guides us through homages of divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. This is no small feat, given the challenges of their distinctive personas but also the differences in dialects and genres – standards, country, blues, torch ballads and opera.

Lennon delivers each number with customary skill, from Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen classic that was part of her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, to Callas’ signature aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” – her 1953 recording is considered the best.

Photo by John Lamb

These are not imitations, but rather representations. As Lennon sings these memorable selections of the 20th century in a revealing and heartfelt way, we are transported to other times and places, as this play offers intimate glimpses into ordinary lives with extraordinary results.

Kevin Bowman’s projection design creates a visual frame of reference for each interaction – the famous singer, who after all is human, and the regular people who are their fans. Touched by the music, those fans make a connection that matters in their lives.

Lennon sets each vignette by smartly defining each fictional everyday woman character with humor and instantly likable traits. And why not? They have unexpected life-changing encounters with musical icons of the 20th century, much to their surprise and joy.

These females are the “Nobodies” in the title, but that’s facetious because they are significant human beings. And Lennon brings out the fun in those personalities.

Lennon has sung with the St. Louis Symphony for 33 years and has performed with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Union Avenue Opera and Winter Opera in St. Louis, in addition to the Muny and other professional regional theater companies.

Debby Lennon sings Edith Piaf, Photo by John Lamb.

For her unforgettable performances in Max and Louie’s “Grey Gardens” and “Souvenir,” she won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. Last year, she appeared in the one-woman show “Love, Linda, The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter.”

Perhaps the most emotional segment is Billie Holiday’s, given her troubles with addiction and the segregated time she lived in, and her bold song “Strange Fruit” is an example of her courage. And “Lady Sings the Blues” was part of her portfolio too.

And French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s rousing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I Don’t Regret Anything) is one of the most familiar songs, and Lennon matches its fervor. She also delivers a robust “L’Accordeoniste.”

Music Director Nicolas Valdez, who also plays piano, superbly conducts the one-woman show. He is joined by Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion. They are behind a black scrim that is strikingly lit by lighting designer Tony Anselmo, a nice touch.

With wit and charm, Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith has imagined these memorable women in intriguing scenarios. Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who is stationed in a powder room in a New York hotel; Pearl Avalon, a proud back-up singer; and fashion writer Too Junior Jones thrilled to interview Billie Holliday take place in the U.S. Edie Delamotte, whose section takes historical liberties when talking about Piaf; and Orla McDonough with prima donna Maria Callas.

The most moving is Edie Delamotte’s recollection of her French father’s hardships during World War II.

The play is captivating in the way it presents the personalities, this timeless music and why we care about our relationships with artists.

Director Pamela Hunt also noted the women lived at a time where many a man controlled their lives. This is indeed an interesting aspect.

These gifted singers are bright-light individuals who allowed their brilliance to shine, which is still felt today, and their stories go beyond entertainment.

In their mission statement, Max and Louie refers to “bringing artists and audiences together in a shared experience that illuminates life through joy, wonder, laughter and tears.” Mission accomplished with “Songs for Nobodies.” You could feel the audience’s happiness. That’s a good way to start Max and Louie’s 11th season.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Songs for Nobodies” Jan. 23 – Feb. 2 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. 501 N. Grand. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. A special 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Feb. 1, has been added. For more information, visit www.maxandlouie.com

Debby Lennon. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Every generation has a musical that captures the zeitgeist
of the moment, that speaks to them in a special way. My generation of Baby
Boomers had “Hair,” Gen X had “Rent,” Millennials had “Spring Awakening” and
now Generation Z has the current cultural sensation “Be More Chill.” It’s
fierce, fun and frisky.

This is not just another teen misfit story, although it taps into familiar themes, bearing some resemblance to “Mean Girls,” Dear Evan Hansen” and “Heathers.”

With more dimensions than stock characters, the kids work
through messy life things – and as an adult, you just want to tell them “It
gets better,” but then we’d have no story conflicts, would we? It’s set in
suburban New Jersey and the time is now.

Is it ever. You’ll identify right away, as the dialogue is
a contemporary bulls-eye.
Besides being incredibly clever, another aspect that sets this realistic cautionary
tale apart is its sci-fi framework. To understand just what a big-bang this musical
clearly is, look at how it has tapped into a youthful energy that’s contagious,
no matter what demographic.

Giving this show both a relevancy and a relatability, New
Line Theatre is presenting the original regional version, which premiered in Red
Bank, New Jersey in 2015, with music and lyrics by the Tony-nominated Joe
Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, which is adapted from Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel. An
off-Broadway smash hit in 2018, “Be More Chill” moved to Broadway in February
with an expanded version that is more ‘bigger is better.’

New Line keeps it focused with a tidy production, marked by
co-directors Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s and Scott Miller’s high-spirited and insightful
interpretation. This is arguably a defining moment for this fearless theater
troupe, and not only because they obtained the rights before its Broadway run, but
also because it’s a major leap forward as the company ends its 28th
season.

The well-cast ensemble, playing 11 characters, sparkles.
Each one has taken this show to heart with so much enthusiasm that it carries
over to the audience, which included many young fans expressing their delight
at every opportunity on opening night. Their joyous embrace of a show that
defines how they feel, look and act is refreshing. The powerful connection
between actors and theatergoers is electric and palpable. The performers feel
every word and the audience responds in kind.

Jayde Mitchell and Grace Langford

In one of the more memorable NLT debuts, Jayde Mitchell genuinely captured the teenage angst of nerdy Jeremy, who goes from zero to hero after a square little pill “from Japan” takes root in his brain, and this supercomputer communicates with a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor). The Squip will guide his moves to become more popular at school. Mitchell announces himself as one to watch with his opening number, “More Than Survive,” and then transforms convincingly throughout, leading this finely tuned ensemble. The mysterious Squip, played with potent authority by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, is stunningly dressed in a dapper black crocodile coat made by costume designer Sarah Porter. He is the catalyst for action good, bad and ugly. If he looks like Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix,” it’s intentional.

Jayde Mitchell and Dominic Dowdy-WindsorDowdy-Windsor, always a strong singer, manages the beats of
the darker role, as he is usually cast in heroic or romantic leads, a la “Yeast
Nation” and “Zorba the Greek.” He’s terrific leading “Be More Chill” and
revealing more of his intentions in “The Pitiful Children.”

As we know from every John Hughes movie in the 1980s, being
a “Cool Kid” has its price, and losing/not valuing true-blue friends is one of
the harshest costs. Jeremy’s bestie, Michael Mell, must be sacrificed in his all-consuming
make-over quest to fit in and be liked – and not be invisible..

As Michael, dynamo Kevin Corpuz shines in a major supporting
role, giving his all – it’s a heartfelt performance, easily tugging at the
emotions in not only his delivery, but in his solo number, ‘Michael in the
Bathroom.”

Irrepressible Evan Fornachon plays Rich, a jerky Big Man on
Campus who likes to bully both Jeremy and Michael, displaying a menace that
makes his ‘a-ha’ moment all the better.

Jayde Mitchell and Evan FornachonJeremy’s Dad is played with marvelously droll delivery by
Zak Farmer, depressed over his recent divorce, who wanders around in a robe,
mortifying his son, who would like to have him put on some pants. How can you
not love a composer who gives you “The Pants Song”?

Farmer also doubles as Mr. Reyes, the cynical and animated
drama teacher. He is very funny, both in appearance with an interesting platinum
wig and in line delivery.

Another standout is Grace Langford playing ditzy Christine,
who had been the object of Jeremy’s affection before the hotter, sluttier girls
made a beeline for him once he had cool street cred. Her off-the-charts exuberance
over acting in school plays is a ‘been there, done that’ bright spot,
especially “I Love Play Rehearsal” and her candid “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into.”

Gossip girl Jenna is all attitude in the hands of Isabel
Garcia, who plays snarky, sassy and snotty with a duplicitous beaming smile.
Laura Renfro, as shallow Chloe, and Melissa Felps, as vapid Brooke, are
mercurial marvels here, powering through their characters’ hormones, secrets and
lies with glee, quickly flipping moods. Ian McCreary also displays the viper girls’
distasteful qualities as their shameless male counterpart Jake.

The meticulous attention to detail is evident in every
creative aspect, which are all in sync to create “a moment,” providing theater
patrons with an entirely memorable experience.

The simplicity of the music, with its repetitive lyrics and
catchy hooks, is deceptive, for music director Nicolas Valdez and his ace band
– Assistant music director Marc Vincent as conductor/keyboard, Jake Heberlie on
guitar, Joseph Henricks on reeds and keyboard, Clancy Newell on percussion and
Jake Stergos on bass are extremely tight in pacing and master the score’s
intricacies.

Choreographers Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack gave both
a playful bounce and a vitality to the group musical numbers.

Combined with the ensemble’s exquisite harmonies, the peppy
group numbers “Be More Chill,” “Upgrade” and “Voices in My Head” get stuck,
well, in your head. And yes,  “The
Smartphone Hour” is literal, funny and nails the cellphone phenomenon.

Scenic designer Rob Lippert’s set is a clever mix of effective
futuristic symbols and as always, his set is supremely functional. Everything
has a purpose for being there. Propmaster Kimi Short did a dandy job assembling
pieces that suit the décor and lifestyles.

Lippert, also the lighting designer, has excelled in
creating precarious teen moods and a fantasy futuristic element with his illuminating
plan. Ryan Day’s sound work is seamless.

In her wheelhouse, Porter has populated the oh-so-fun and
cringe-worthy Halloween Party with a variety of spot-on costumes, showcasing
both personality and pop culture references. Her work throughout is accurate –
and cheeky. She gets the ‘90s love.

“Be More Chill” is fresh and funny, and not in a jaded
‘we’re so clever and smart’ way, but with real heart, and that may be the most
important aspect – the emphasis on real.

 The musical, in
lyrics and book, speaks to us in a captivating way that transcends labels and
genres. It
targets our humanity. To make people feel less alone in this world is
a remarkable thing.

(There is a wall of Post-It Notes at The Marcelle indicating what people imagine as their Squip. I didn’t take marker to paper opening night, but I’ve thought about it since, and mine would be Oprah. What’s yours?)

The New Line Theatre is presenting “Be More Chill” through June 22 but is sold out for its complete run. For more information about New Line, visit www.NewLineTheatre.com

#BeMoreChillSTL

Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
There is a sparkle that emanates, not just because of the outward snazzy sequined
outfits and shimmery set in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” but also inward
from the all-male drag chorus, Les Cagelles. Their unbridled enthusiasm for a
show celebrating “Be Yourself” is obvious, and underneath their wigs and cosmetic
enhancements, it’s endearing.

In fact, one strongly feels the liberation of the drag chorus, supporting players and in the tour-de-force performance from Zachary Allen Farmer as the drag diva Zaza/Albin. That palpable sense of freedom is one of the production’s most enduring qualities.

Set in the 1980s on the French Riviera, Georges (Robert
Doyle) and Albin (Farmer) have lived as a married couple for years and work
together – Georges runs the nightclub downstairs and Albin is the star
performer Zaza. They have raised the now-grown Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz) as
their son since birth, in their own version of a loving nuclear family. Biologically,
he’s Georges’ son, born from a one-night dalliance with a woman who has chosen
not to be an integral factor in the boy’s life.

When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Zora Vredeveld), her
ultra-conservative parents, politician dad Dindon (Kent Coffel) and mom (Mara
Bollini), are invited to dinner, prompting panic, for fear of exposing their ‘alternative’
lifestyle to disapproval, and ultimately, difficulties for Jean-Michel.

The ensuing melodrama and potential disasters are more akin
to an episode of “I Love Lucy” – and it’s all because of trying to hide who
they really are. But then, what the hell – dignity eventually reigns. In the
meantime, wackiness ensues for plenty of side-splitting laughs, with co-directors’
Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s deft touch.

Focusing on characters who are loud, proud and know who they are is the hallmark of “La Cage Aux Folles” in all its art forms, from the hilarious 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, to the French film adaptation in 1978 to the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical in 1983 to the American movie version in 1996 “The Birdcage” to the Tony-winning Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010.

It’s not a new view, by any means. You would think by now,
people wouldn’t have to keep defending themselves, but homophobia still exists
in the most insidious and cruel ways in the 21st century. Therefore,
“La Cage Aux Folles” remains timely, and important, and most importantly, fun.

As always, “La Cage” boldly stands up to hypocrisy, ignorance and self-righteous prigs with sharp social commentary wrapped in light-hearted comedy and hummable music. This delectable confection as a crowd-pleaser is a brilliant offense, and Fierstein’s smart script is redolent with both zingers and heartfelt moments.

But this cast emphasizes it with their own perceptible
feeling of family, that intangible quality that sells the show, and underlined
by the confident directors.

Zora Vredeveld, Kevin Corpuz, Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer triumphantly leads this family in one of his finest performances. The actor, with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle nominations spanning seven years, has long since proven his versatility. He has been moving before – as the loner in “The Night of the Living Dead” and the slighted genius Leo Szilard in “Atomic,” and charming — the protective dad in “The Zombies of Penzance” and befuddled Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in “Anything Goes,” and comical as the iconoclast “Butkowski” and villain in “Celebration,” but the high-wire demands of Zaza/Albin go beyond the physical and present the biggest challenge.

Farmer is believable as this temperamental drama queen,
both in carriage and conviction. He looks fabulous, rocking the outfits – especially
that gorgeous lilac gown in the show-stopping “I Am What I Am,” notably after a
real-life 163-lb. weight loss. He projects effeminate airs, but not in a campy,
cartoonish way – they are organic to his character.

Because he isn’t merely window-dressing, Farmer’s transparency
showing the quicksilver mood swings — the hurt, the love and the defiance — ring
true. That makes him genuinely affecting as a transvestite man, while pushed to
the sidelines by convention, who refuses to be a cliché.

Robert Doyle and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer is so sensational that perhaps Georges suffers in
comparison. As written, the part is in the parlance of a ‘straight man’ in a
comedy duo, and Robert Doyle is rather bland in the role, more in the shadow of
the very flamboyant characters. A few of the early songs seem a little shaky –
the duet “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand,” but it could have been a
lower range issue on opening night. In the second act, “Look Over There” was
much more assertive.

The young engaged couple – Corpuz and Vredeveld – also are
secondary to the daffy proceedings because of the big personalities unleashed
here. They have a sweet dance interlude and competently convey their roles, but
really, the focus is pulled more towards the outrageous goings-on.

Tielere Cheatem as Jacob. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.As the mercurial butler Jacob, Tielere Cheatem is dandy cavorting
in whirlwind prima donna mode. Strutting like a peacock, all attitude and
motion, Cheatem is a nimble laugh-riot making numerous scene-stealing entrances
in a procession of increasingly over-the-top outfits. His comic timing is
impressive.

When a pompous bigoted politician is set up for comeuppance, you know good humor will result, and the expressive Coffel milks it for laughs. And Bollini, as the snobbish wife and mother, is a good sport.

Both also play progressive restaurateurs M. and Madame
Renaud, and their “Masculinity” scene giving Albin tips on how to be macho is a
standout.

Lindsey Jones and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Lindsey Jones is used effectively as Jacqueline, a chic
restaurant owner whose place is the setting for some fireworks and several
terrific numbers – “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.”

As previously mentioned, the spirited Les Cagelles are a
high point with their ebullience and energy — Jake Blonstein, Dominic
Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg and Ian McCreary are
gleeful as real accomplished showmen.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Fornachon, as the dominatrix Hanna, is quite comfortable
cracking a whip. A running gag is his ‘physical’ relationship with nightclub stage
manager Francis (Joel Hackbarth).

As a cohesive cast, it does not matter who’s really gay or
straight, all are convincing and display a commitment to their characters by
not relying on superficial stereotypes.

Behind the scenes are several unsung heroes – namely, stellar costume designer Sarah Porter, whose work is stunning. She also guided the make-up and wig applications with outstanding results.

Sara Rae Womack and Michelle Sauer choreographed the peppy musical numbers, moving Les Cagelles well in the provided space.

Nicolas Valdez’ work as music director is also exceptional –
he leads the Jerry Herman score with vitality, and the vocalists enunciate the
lyrics well. Herman, who crafted such iconic shows as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,”
succeeded here with a traditional score but with a definitive light touch.

Valdez’ band – Kelly Austermann on reeds, Ron Foster on trumpet, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Sergos on bass – is a finely tuned ensemble that created a smooth, effortless flow of upbeat tempos and poignant ballads. They are hidden behind a scrim, which worked out well.

Next to the grand “I Am What I Am,” my favorite number was “The
Best of Times,” delivered crisply as a robust, sentimental tune summing up the
show’s poignancy – and a swell sing-a-long moment.

Rob Lippert’s colorful scenic design had plenty of pizzazz –
a functional combination of glitzy showplace and living quarters. And his
lighting design competently alternated between daylight and nightlife. Ryan Day’s
expert sound design is consistently good.

There is an obvious joy and compassion in this work, and because everyone involved is having such a good time, it carries over to the audience. After all, love is love is love is love.

None of us need permission to be who we are, but “La Cage Aux Folles” reminds us that we are all free to be you and me. And that’s mighty fine any time.

Photo by Jill Ritter LIndbergNew Line Theatre presents “La Cage Aux Folles” March 1 through March 23, Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District. For tickets, visit Metrotix.com or call 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com

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