NYMF 2011 Review #5: The Brain That Wouldn't Die (in 3-D)

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Real Quick: If you're a writer with a musical that you're planning to submit to NYMF for 2012, the submissions end in two weeks and not January, due to next year's festival being in July and not September.  See here.
I'm at the point now where I feel like writing a long manifesto about the rules of writing a comedic musical (which are different than those of a musical comedy, the latter emphasizing more on being "light" than comedic).  Actually, maybe the manifesto isn't so long: make the book funny, make the songs funny, and make the performers funny (or serious, if what you're going for isn't camp).  It takes quite a long time for The Brain That Wouldn't Die to hit this trifecta, and while the last quarter is an absolute riot, only a superb cast differentiates huge portions of the show from being the sort of stuff that the show is lampooning.

The musical exists mostly as a lampoon of the same-named 1962 movie, the first to be screened for Mystery Science Theatre 3000.  It's a b-horror film about a crazy doctor who tries to save his wife's life by keeping her head alive while finding a suitable body to replace it with.  The musicalization of such ridiculous material isn't new (Reefer Madness, Evil Dead, etc) but honestly, there's always room for another horror-spoof if it's done well.

The problem with "Brain" is that the authors often don't have much of a strong comedic take on their subject matter.   They throw everything at the Book including puns galore, random callouts to The Muppet Show, and declarations that songs are being cut for running-time reasons when the "choices" of which scenes to "leave in" are suspect.  But really, the big issue is the score: a song about how a disembodied head wishes she could cry again, a song about how wonderful a particular serum is, and more numbers that stop the plot cold and seem destined for a more serious musical.

And yet, somewhere halfway through act two, magic happens.  First a hilarious conceptual number where a girl announces how in-love she is while slowly realizing she's been drugged.  Then a bit where two characters dance-fight through a foam door.  A whole bunch of "fake 3-D special effects".  And finally, the horrific characters you've spent the evening with break out into a ridiculous technicolor number.  And you almost forget how weak the show had been thus far.

The writers have a piece here with a lot of potential, and with more work I don't doubt they can bring the rest of the show to the quality level of the last 1/4th if they go back and spend some more time on it.  They have a phenomenal cast, particularly standouts Dana Steingold, Brian Charles Rooney, and Jamie Jackson as a Shockheaded-Peter-style-emcee.  Clifton Chadick's flat, black-and-white set and props are simply perfect, and the direction by Tim Drucker keeps the show moving at a good pace.  It's clear from the second act that the creators know what sort of ridiculous camp this show should be, they just need to get the first act to be equally as good, and remember that the songs in a comedy need to be funny too.

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