Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Dead Outlaw (Audible)

By Harry Forbes

For its first half, the new musical co-written by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna takes the form of a stylized concert telling of the life of a two-bit, would be bank/train robber: one Elmer McCurdy, born 1880 (and played with bravura skill by Andrew Durand, late of “Shucked”). but wait. Before long, Elmer is killed by a posse in a 1911 shoot-out. The unnerving and puzzling effect feels somewhat akin to star Janet Leigh being killed so early in “Psycho.” So where can the show go from here? 

Well, as the title should have tipped us off, the remainder of the show’s 100-minute running time tells the utterly fascinating story of what then happens to poor Elmer’s corpse. This is, you see, a true story, one which came to light when the hanging red-painted body in an amusement park’s horror house was discovered by a TV film crew to be the remains of an actual person, not a mere prop. The corpse had already had a decades-long usage as a sideshow/carnival attraction. The saga has already been recounted In books (one by Mark Svenvold), a stage play, and a BBC documentary.

The book of the musical is written by Itamar Moses whose “The Band’s Visit” (also with Yazbek) won him a Tony Award, but this couldn’t be more different from that show, or, for that matter, his concurrent drama, “The Ally,” playing at the Public Theater. 

The score, filled with hard-driving country tunes, rock, and sweet ballads, is an interesting one. And in addition to Durand’s dynamic performance, the cast is very fine. Jeb Brown is the narrator, though he steps off the bandstand to play a bandit gang leader who, to his later regret, takes the inept Elmer under wing. 

Julia Knitel is lovely as a local girl who falls for Elmer, and could be his salvation were it not for Elmer’s psychological problems and heavy drinking which give him a real Jekyll Hyde dynamic. And she plays all the other female characters too. Trent Saunders has a strong moment as Cherokee Andy Payne, a long-distance champion runner on the newly opened Route 66 in 1928. (McCurdy’s arsenic-preserved mummy was a sideshow attraction during the race.)

Thom Sesma has an outrageous but crowd pleasing number as famed LA County Coroner Thomas Noguchi who pieced together the circumstances of McCurdy’s demise. There is superlative work, too, from Eddie Cooper, Dashiell Eaves, and Ken Marks (as Douglas MacArthur who was actually McCurdy’s superior during his brief army stint).

The whole is fluidly directed by David Cromer with movement direction by Ani Taj. Arnulfo Maldonado’s revolving set (both the bandstand and the set itself turn), atmospherically lit by Heather Gilbert, provides visual variety. And Sarah Laux’s costumes run the gamut from late 19th century to the late 1970s.   

Under Dean Sharenow’s music supervision, Rebekah Bruce conducts (and plays the piano for) the exemplary band which includes Della Penna himself on guitars, lap steel, and banjo, HANK, and Chris Smylie. (Bruce, Della Penna, and HANK double as vocalists, too.

The musical, like all Audible productions, will also be recorded for release at a later date,

(Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane; DeadOutlawMusical.com; through April 7)

Photo by Matthew Murphy (2024): (l-r) Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand, and Eddie Cooper

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