Something has gone terribly wrong in Victorian-era New England. The dead no longer remain dead, instead climbing from their graves to stalk the living, sing and occasionally break into a ramshackle chorus line. The living must deal with the prospect of being eaten alive every time they leave the house, and then becoming that which killed them.
New Line Theatre's The Zombies of Penzance adds a dark tinge of horror to Gilbert and Sullivan's classic operetta of jolly pirates raiding the upper class, and the result is both a nightmare and a delight — let's call it a "delightmare." The songs are ripping, the performances are outstanding and the philosophical questions raised by the undead's increasing dominance are chilling.
Scott Miller and John Gerdes are the responsible parties, tinkering with Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's music to create something more than the sum of the parts. The two St. Louisans have added modern references, profanity and a careful adherence to the spirit of the original operetta. Portraits of George A. Romero and Queen Victoria hang above the old-fashioned stage and its working footlights, hinting at the twin forces at work here. Romero is the godfather of zombies in popular entertainment, and Victoria led the society that simultaneously embraced Gilbert & Sullivan's jaunty work and harbored a morbid fascination with life after death. All of these elements come together on stage, to strange and often comic effect.
Our protagonist, Frederic (Sean Michael), is a new-made zombie, and unlike his fellows he's retained a spark of passion and a moral urge to not eat humans. The former is kindled when he sees the beautiful Mabel (Melissa Felps) and implores her to not fear him. Both Michael and Felps have beautiful voices, and their scenes together are very good.
Frederic's not so free to fall in love, however. The Zombie King (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) and his horde of starving zombies assure him he'll soon desire flesh and brains the way they do. Still, they haven't eaten in far too long, because it's the Zombie King's policy to neither fight nor eat other undead. Word has spread of this quirk, and so every human they encounter claims to be recently undead.
Mabel has her own problems. Her father, Major-General Stanley (Zachary Allen Farmer) is a renowned zombie killer, and he's trained his many daughters in the art. Despite her budding romance with Frederic, Daddy's not likely to approve of her new beau (or let him go undestroyed).
The major set pieces of the original are still present, such as the Stanley sisters hoving into view while singing "We're Christian Girls" and the Major-General's patter song, "Modern Major-General," here recast as "Modern Major Zombie Killer." Farmer blazes through the song with perfect enunciation, allowing you to catch Miller's updated lyrics, which include the declaration, "I've seen Romero's movies and I've memorized all six of them."
But it's not all fun and pop-culture riffs. Despite his lethal nature, the Major-General has a most troubled conscience. The second-act song "When the World Went Bad" cracks open the show's candy coating to reveal the darkness within. Stanley sings of his fears about the forces bringing the dead to life, and worries about the coarsening of his soul. Is he less moral than the Zombie King, who spares some people (albeit under false pretenses)? The Major-General kills them all, and then shakes with terror and remorse late at night. Is he worse than what he hunts?
It's a question that harkens back to Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which was Romero's own inspiration. The book also informs the finale, which is preceded by a delightfully ridiculous brawl between the Stanley daughters, who are in their bloomers and bearing cricket bats and nunchucks, and the zombie horde. Things become very dark indeed. But you know what they say: It's always darkest before the dawn of the dead.