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SILENCE! The Musical

nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
July 8, 2011

Who would have figured that a musical of The Silence of the Lambs would end up one of the best movie-to-musical transfers in recent memory? A Greek chorus of dancing sheep guide your way through Silence! The Musical, the big hit of FringeNYC 2005, now receiving a commercial off-Broadway run at Theatre 80. Al and Jon Kaplan and Hunter Bell’s unauthorized parody of Jonathan Demme’s classic film (based on Thomas Harris’s novel), directed and choreographed with panache by Christopher Gattelli, produces more belly laughs than I thought possible. Not only that; at one point, I realized that laughing so hard produced a few tears.

Silence! was born when the brothers Kaplan posted a few songs online, to much acclaim. After an attempt at a screenplay, a pre-[title of show] Bell was brought on to write the libretto. Eventually it sold out its festival run, won the major FringeNYC musical award, and had a recent successful run in London.

Audiences who look fondly on Reefer Madness, the similarly excellent, vulgar, and hilarious cult musical that skewers the 1936 propaganda film on which it's based, will find a great deal of enjoyment in Silence! The unflappable Jenn Harris plays Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI student with a hard lisp picked to go head-to-head with the incarcerated cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Brent Barrett), in order to help track down Buffalo Bill (Stephen Bienskie), the serial killer who murders overweight women and uses their skin as clothing. The plot essentially follows the film to the letter, exaggerating certain moments that have achieved cult status. A certain line about putting lotion in a basket becomes a song. A handless man trying to help Clarice into a storage locker becomes a funny gag. And so on.

The humor in Silence! never gets old. Gattelli’s staging is so perfectly pitched and paced that the show never feels overlong or even dull. In fact, it goes by so quickly that you almost want it to run longer. Fiercely in tune with the Kaplans and Bell, Gattelli even makes a chorus of actors in sheep ears and socks on their hands seem not cheesy. And his versions of some of the film’s classic moments—like when an inmate shoots semen on Clarice—is demented in the best possible way. (I don’t want to give it away, but it involves silly string.)

There’s even a dream ballet between Young Hannibal and Young Clarice, during another truly demented moment, in this case, a perversely beautiful ballad called “If I Could Smell Her Cunt,” sung by Barrett, possessor of one of Broadway’s great voices, who sends the number soaring down St. Mark’s Place. It should be noted that he is not skewering Anthony Hopkins in the process, while Harris’s whole perfect, deadpan, wink-free take on Clarice stems out of how close she looks, and sounds, to Foster. They’re ably supported by the expertly creepy Bienskie, the fierce Deidre Goodwin (as Clarice’s friend Ardelia Mapp), the scene-stealing Jeff Hiller, and the rest of the company, which includes Harry Bouvy, Howard Kaye, Lucia Spina, and Callan Bergmann and Ashlee Dupre as the dream ballet dancers.

Silence! deserves to run at Theatre 80 for as long as possible. If only all movie-turned-musicals were this good.