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Inspired serial-killer musical mocks scary movie

The 1991 classic horror movie "Silence of the Lambs" screams a lot of things. "Musical comedy" is not the first that jumps to mind.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 1991 classic horror movie "Silence of the Lambs" screams a lot of things. "Musical comedy" is not the first that jumps to mind.

In a flourishing return to New York, Jon and Al Kaplan's raucously funny theatrical tribute, "Silence! The Musical," is doing all it can to change that.

The unauthorized parody of the film that made Hannibal Lecter a household name is sure to keep theatergoers on the edge of their seat, although the only scary thing about this show is how consistently amusing its goofy brand of humor is.

The Kaplans (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) lovingly, if irreverently, poke fun at everything about the Academy Award-winning movie, from its notable leads, Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins — both of whom won Oscars for their roles — to its less distinguished sequel.

Jenn Harris' exaggerated impression of Foster as Clarice Starling, the resolute but tormented FBI agent, is decadently cute and surprisingly doesn't get tiresome, as overblown as it is.

"Silence," which opened Saturday at off-Broadway's Theatre 80, masterfully taps into the kind of silly but raw, say-anything appeal that made the musical "Avenue Q" a big hit.

It originated as a series of songs that acquired viral popularity online. The full theatrical adaptation came later and has proven a success, although its staging displays room for development, particularly in a somewhat uneven second act that doesn't quite deliver on the promise of the first.

One scene that stands out for its theatrical value — and hilarity — is a dreamlike dance number during Clarice's shocking first prison visit to see Hannibal. The unsettling encounter is ironically transformed into a comically pining love song, performed immaculately by a talented Brent Barrett as Hannibal.

The song's irony is memorably reflected in the playfully risque choreography of Christopher Gattelli, who also directs the show.

The fast-moving comedy features several appearances by an irresistibly lovable chorus of singing and dancing lambs, complete with floppy ears and clumsy hooves.

These inspired, albeit juvenile, bits of dramatization enrich the music and book in many small ways, but are absent at times, most glaringly in a climactic scene when Clarice is stalked in complete darkness by the homicidal maniac, Buffalo Bill (Stephen Bienskie), who chillingly has the advantage of night-vision goggles. The situation cries out for something more than the mostly static, colorless staging it receives.

But the strength of "Silence" is in its clever, catchy songs and well-rounded cast, which also includes Deidre Goodwin and Jeff Hiller, who contribute notable performances in various secondary roles.

The show first made a splash in a 2005 run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, winning the New York Fringe Festival's award for best musical. It returns to New York fresh off a well-received London engagement.

The intimate, cozy space at Theatre 80 seems to suit "Silence," and the production is fittingly sparse, making the most of minimal sets and props. Instrumental accompaniment is mostly limited to piano and percussion.

The simple instrumentation tastefully accents the singers, though one can't help but to wonder how these unabashedly fun songs would play in a bigger theater, with more extravagant orchestration.

"Silence! The Musical" is on display at Theatre 80 through Aug. 13.