One of the break-out hits of NYMF this year, at least in terms of attendance, was Re-Animator: The Musical. The show's festival popularity was likely based on the name recognition of the H.P Lovecraft title, the 1985 cult film based on the book, and the presence in the cast of "Cheers" alum George Wendt. Re-Animator is yet another in a line of intentionally campy musicals trying to recapture the magic of Little Shop of Horrors or Bat Boy. Instead, we get something a bit closer to Evil Dead: The Musical or The Toxic Avenger, at least in terms of the quality of the writing (i.e. low). Re-Animator got off to a shaky start with an opening number of which I wasn't able to understand a word. Perhaps this was a sound-level issue, or the loud, lifeless synthesizer accompaniment, but the dull drone of the tuneless music itself wasn't helping. The score by one Mark Nutter exhibits little if any compositional flare, although some of the songs did occasionally approach something resembling a melody. There were a few numbers that exhibited periodic flashes of wit and tunefulness, for instance one involving a medical student accusing his professor of plagiarism, and another involving an autopsy. But, as the show stands, its main assets lie in some reasonably funny set pieces and in the potential for special effects, some of which were already quite impressive, in particular a zombified mad scientist carrying his own severed head. One final note of irritation, there were clear and obvious shills in the audience emitting painfully obvious forced laughter. (Note to once and future writers: Please don't do this. If your show works, the audience will provide the approbation. If it doesn't, you're only embarrassing yourself when the one person laughing is your Aunt Marie.)
A Letter to Harvey Milk was one of the big winners this year of the 2012 NYMF Awards for Excellence, including the award for best book, a shared award for best lyrics, and performance awards for stars Leslie Kritzer and Jeff Keller. For the most part, the show deserved these awards. The show has a book by Jerry James, music by Laura l. Kramer, lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz, and is based on a short story by Lesléa Newman. The story involves a retired kosher butcher (Keller) who takes up a writing class and the relationship that he develops with his writing teacher (Kritzer). In the course of the show, we discover things about both characters in a way that draws a profound parallel between the gay-rights struggle of the 1970s and the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. This may sound ponderous, but Harvey Milk is extraordinarily moving, if a tad flawed in its current form. The characters are charming and sympathetic, and the show works really well when it's heartfelt. It's during the moments of abundant hoary humor that the show sometimes falters, although in this production the masterful performers usually find ways to make even the clumsiest material work. Keller is simply outstanding as Harry Weinberg, the butcher, particularly at the very end of the show when all the story threads come together and we witness a devastating episode from Harry's past. Leslie Kritzer makes for a wonderfully understated but emotionally rich foil for Harry. The score features some remarkably lovely songs, including "Frannie's Hands," in which Harry describes the charms of his late wife. The score goes a tad awry in some of the comic numbers, particularly "Turning the Tables," a number in a Jewish deli, complete with an overdose of hoary Yiddish jokes. Some of the dramatic moments in the show need better setup, and one crucial reveal at the end of the show was met with unintended laughter from the audience the day I saw the show. But, overall, A Letter to Harvey Milk is one of two shows from this year's NYMF (the other being He's Not Himself) that I'm most eager to see advance to the next stage, wherever that might be.