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Kick Some Demon A**: A review of 'Nightmare! A Musical Adaptation'

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This review, and the production itself, contains language some may find offensive.

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Productions take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and Midnight at Dog Story Theater, 6 Jefferson, Grand Rapids.

Tickets are $12

Nightmare! A Musical Adaptation

Nightmare! A Musical Adaptation /Dog Story Theater

Whatever you might think about "Nightmare!," the latest offering at Dog Story Theater, the premise is downright brilliant: a comedic, musical adaptation of "Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors," opening just in time for Halloween. As any connoisseur knows, "Dream Warriors" is the only one of the eight sequels worth watching (Patricia Arquette’s first role! Directed by the guy who remade "The Blob!"). And next to "Scream," the "Nightmare" series is the one horror franchise with a sense of humor. I mean, come on, the seventh one (“The Ascension”) has poor, ever-haunted Nancy Thompson discovering that Wes Craven is making a new movie about Freddy and she has to play herself to survive.

But I digress.

Director Joel Schindlbeck has cannily re-imagined the plot for the stage and clearly had a blast doing it. The story remains the same: a group of teenagers at a psychiatric facility begin seeing a strange demon in their dreams, and Nancy (played by Sarah Stark) returns as a psychiatrist specializing in, apparently, Freddy. Young addict Taryn (Rachel Gleason), mute Joey (Colin Maxwell Beerens), and the kid into making weird puppets (Nick Milbratz) discover that they can fight back against Freddy when new arrival Kristen (Holly Havens, boldly stepping into Patricia Arquette’s bunny slippers) reveals she can pull them into her dreams. It’s "Inception," basically, with cackling.

Given the source material, you know you’re in for a series of ghoulish death sequences, most of which were creatively, unfussily theatricalized. If each teen doesn’t exactly get the death they deserve, they get the one the props allow. Styrofoam heads, broken televisions, and syringes are used to great effect, and the show finds some genuine laughs in aping horror film conventions. At one point, lights come up, one of the hospital janitors discovers a body, says “Fuck”, and lights go out. My favorite death might have been Taryn’s surprising demise, since the testy, ex-junkie goes mano a mano with Freddy wielding a meat fork and even Freddy seems to realize she will cut a bitch.

The stand-out performance of the show was Gleason who, in addition to being well-cast, can actually sing. Her opening, acoustic version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was truly smart (if a bit overlong), and she led the choruses of the show-stompers “Kick Some Demon Ass” and “Gotta Stay Awake All Night.” Schindelbeck even had her do a slam poem to kick off the second act. Kat Hermes, as a mysterious nun, was also very strong and completely committed, and her ballad “The Madmen and the Nun” was maybe the best crafted tune of the bunch. All the dream warriors seemed to be having a lot of fun and really, that’s most of what I wanted.

Like any good premise-driven show (and this Schindlbeck’s second, after last year’s "Friday the 13th: The Musical"), the show is review-proof. If you like the "Nightmare" series, you will enjoy the in-jokes and familiar material, like Nancy’s white — and weirdly shellacked — shock of hair. Schindlbeck, as music director/song writer/accompanist/and adapter, put a lot of work into this show and it shows. At times, the show tried for camp, not parody, and the comedy felt forced. Actors mugged their lines or pointed at their own bad puns. If Susan Sontag’s right (and yeah, I just said Susan Sontag), you can’t intend to make camp. The pace sometimes lagged, as show was over-faithful to the film or songs dutifully ran through multiple verses and choruses and simply sounded too much like each other. Some trims would have helped enormously. Lastly, I think what I missed most were actual scares. Seeing a bit less of Freddy, especially early on, would have raised the fear-factor, and a couple of stark turns (or swerves away from the flick) would have made the show, and audience, jump.

The Dog Story Theater, in its new location at 6 Jefferson, made an enormously smart decision to relocate downtown. With a mission to provide an affordable, flexible venue for local performing artists, the theatre is ideally positioned to become a vital spot for culture in the city.

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