I Scream for Scream Queens

Thirty years ago, it was considered clever to spoof obscure science-fiction films. Stage musicals like The Rocky Horror Show and movies like Phantom of the Paradise were all the rage, and movie nerds who knew our George Pal and our Herschell Gordon Lewis felt vindicated in our passion for cheesy horror flicks. Always staged or screened in dark, dusty spaces in "the bad part of town," these camp cabarets celebrated the arcane minutiae we'd all come to know and love.

Three decades later, everything old is, well, old again. Rocky Horror is a cottage industry whose innumerable revivals are attended by grannies and blasé junior high schoolers; Ed Wood and Roger Corman are as well-known as Billy Wilder; and celebrating cheesy sci-fi with campy songs is today the stuff of Mad TV skits.

Why, then, does Artists' Theatre Project's Scream Queens: The Musical work so well? An all-girl camp tuner about the joys of Z-grade horror flicks is such a tired idea that right now, someone is probably squirreled away somewhere writing a spoof of such spoofs. Shoehorned into the dark, dusty confines of one of those renovated garage galleries on Grand Avenue, Scream Queens hollers in earnest about how campy camp can be, but does so with such gusto and charm that its worn-out premise seems somehow shiny and new.

And that's really saying something when that premise is a musical revue written and performed by a sextet of fictional horror-movie actresses at the would-be ScreamiCon, where geeky film fans come to ogle slasher stars but wind up watching them sing and dance. Author Scott Martin has wedged every all-girl-musical-revue cliché into his show, which includes a number of unfortunately unfunny film clips made especially for the production. The gals read and answer fan mail, present a Lifetime Achievement Award to schlock master Roger Corman, improvise a Q&A session, and even participate in that most hateful cliché, the audience participation routine (in this case — horrors! — twice, with a screaming contest and a monster movie reenactment).

Developed in cooperation with the tony Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, Scream Queens works when it shouldn't thanks to Martin's catchy melodies, witty lyrics, and hilarious punch lines. It doesn't hurt that his material is sold by an enormously talented cast, each of them adept at comedy and able to fill a room with pitch-perfect vocals.

Standouts include Kim Jeffries as the innocent ingénue who sells a dead-earnest tribute to Fay Wray while swaddled in a giant prosthetic ape hand; Andi Watson as an over-the-hill but still glamorous lush whose big solo is backed by a hilarious chorus line of tutu-wearing fan dancers; and Nicole Lang, whose tremendous vocals help sell a sweet song about happy endings that really doesn't belong here, but that's still a total pleasure to hear.

Director Douglas Loynd keeps the many components of this complicated show moving at a fast clip by integrating set changes into each number and letting the gals improvise over the inevitable technical glitches that come with film clips and audience participation. The show's opening night performance was so seamless and such fun to watch unfold that I forgot how tired the material should have been and how hot and cramped the space was, and ended up simply enjoying the campy fun before me.


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