March 16, 2024

"Dead Outlaw" is the Liveliest Show in Town

You can usually tell within the first 10 minutes or so of seeing a show whether you’re in good hands. And I knew right away that I was in very good hands when I saw Dead Outlaw, the first Audible-sponsored musical that is now scheduled to run at the MInetta Lane Theatre through April 7 and then later will be available to listen to on the Audible website. 

To be honest, I had a hunch that this might be a good one even before I got to the theater because the creative team—composer David Yazbek, book writer Itamar Moses and director David Cromer—had also put together the Tony-winning musical The Band’s Visit; plus, each of these guys is a show-making ace in his own right. 

But I had also been a little skeptical because the premise of their new show is totally bonkers. It’s the story of a ne’er-do-well outlaw named Elmer McCurdy, who was killed in a shoot-out after a bungled train robbery in 1911. He probably would have been forgotten except that a local undertaker embalmed his corpse until someone claimed it and when no one did the mummified McCurdy was put on display for a nickel a peek and eventually passed from one sleazy sideshow venue to another until his remains were finally buried in 1977 (click here to read his full story). 

You can imagine that turning such an unlikely tale into a musical is the kind of thing that Stephen Sondheim would have relished. But the Dead Outlaw crewincluding Erik Della Penna, who collaborated with Yazbek on the music and lyrics and plays in the show's onstage bandmore than meets the challenge. 

They’ve turned this macabre saga into a nuanced commentary on the fascination with death and violence that fuels today’s obsession with true crime stories. At the same time, they remind us that we should be more respectful of these narratives because death is the one thing that we’re all eventually going to experience first-hand. And then, they’ve set all of this to some terrific toe-tapping music.

A six-person band plays country tunes and roots music, with occasional foray into hard rock and jazz. The lyrics throughout are wickedly funny but chilling too:

And so you fail with failures and you confront your rivals  

Who stand there armed with Bibles pointing at you 

And you plot, you scheme, you had a chance, you had a dream 

You couldn’t get a witness so you stand here today 

Your mama’s dead  

John Gotti’s dead  

Dillinger’s dead  

And so are you  

Each of the eight cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, gets at least one moment to shine and they all glow. In fact, they’re all so good that it’s unfair to single out any one of them but I can’t resist shouting out a few of my favorites.

Andrew Durand, last seen in Shucked, is amazing as McCurdy; he sings the hell out of the songs he’s given when McCurdy is alive and then somehow is just as charismatic when he spends half the show standing deathly-still in a coffin as the dead man’s corpse

Jeb Brown, who as a kid made his debut as one of the no-necked monsters in the 1974 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and has knocked around Broadway in small parts ever since, has finally gotten the role he's no doubt been waiting for and now totally nails: as the show’s guitar-playing and pork-pie-hat-wearing narrator he is folksy, funny and sexy. 

Meanwhile, the veteran character actor Thom Sesma almost steals the entire show in a cabaret-style number as the famed L.A. coroner-to-the-stars Thomas Noguchi.  

Much of this has to be credited to the nimble direction of David Cromer, who not only keeps everyone on the same page but somehow manages to keep the show simultaneously light and dark. It’s a deft dance with death that you’re bound to enjoy.

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