(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)
If there’s any movie that begged to never be made into a musical, it’s Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic thriller “Silence of the Lambs.” Relating the story of FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s relationship with urbane, cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter as she elicits his aid in the search for another mass murderer, the movie is an American classic.
In 2003, brothers Jon and Al Kaplan created a series of comedic songs retelling the movie’s story. They released the parody songs online, becoming an early Internet sensation. In 2005, with some additional songs and a satirical book written by Hunter Bell, “Silence! The Musical” premiered at the New York Fringe Festival, ultimately turning into an Off Broadway hit and cult sensation.
As the curators of offbeat, cult musicals, Doctah Mistuh Productions is the perfect company to bring “Silence” to Austin. Playing through Sept. 4 at Austin Playhouse, this production is a remounting of a previous run, but the show has lost none of its bite.
Director Michael McKelvey and his design team have put together a relatively simple set-up for a show with so many different locations, allowing “Silence” to move along at a brisk pace. The material demands this, laden as it is with joke upon joke – some carefully crafted and clever, others delightful groaners – in the style of a Zucker brothers film.
Though some of the humor in the text is hit or miss, the songs are pitch-perfect, ranging from entire musical numbers based off of random dialogue from the film, to those based on more memorable lines that can’t be repeated in mixed company.
This talented cast go to great lengths to sell the silly, absurd, and occasionally gross humor of the show, particularly the straight-faced leads Amy Downing and Huck Huckaby as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. By providing a modicum of grounding, they allow the rest of the cast to ham it up, with delightful results.
David Ponton is especially strong as Buffalo Bill, the serial killer who likes to turn women into clothing. With his sardonic smile and complete revelry in the extremes of the character, Ponton could play Buffalo Bill in a serious production of Silence of the Lambs and still shine. He is matched by Libby Detling as kidnap victim Catherine Martin (as well as Catherine’s pleading mother), whose extreme, purposeful shrillness serves as a hilarious counterpoint to Ponton’s cool demeanor.
There is certainly nothing highbrow about Silence! The Musical, and that is just how Doctah Mistuh Productions would have it. “Silence” goes for the laugh at all times, and more often than not it succeeds, creating a fun, fast-paced evening of theater best enjoyed over a nice Chianti.