Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and tragic divadom aside, summer is traditionally the silly season in theater, and Off Broadway has obligingly thrown itself into the breach. First and most-unmissable, there’s SILENCE! The Musical, a spoof-musical adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs that’s been slouching toward a run ever since it debuted at the Fringe Festival in 2005. In a testament to its talented cast — led by deadpan impressionatrix Jenn Harris (Swan!!!) as rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, Broadway tenor Brent Barrett as the psychopathic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and Stephen Bienskie as skinsuit-seamstress/serial killer Buffalo Bill — SILENCE! has held up remarkably well, considering its origins as a parodic song cycle posted online nearly a decade ago by its composer-lyricists (comedy writers Jon and Al Kaplan).
The shock-happy one-joke tunes (e.g. “If I Could Smell Her Cunt”) are still funny — Barrett’s sumptuous interpretation of his aching olfactory anthem succeeds especially well — though they now seem more like shiny gewgaws on a concept fleshed out well past its original boneframe: Kudos to bookwriter Hunter Bell ([title of show]) and director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Altar Boyz) for knitting all these frowsy swatches of irony and Airplane!-y one-offs into something approximating a real show. But special credit must go to two parties: first to Harris, for her minimalist’s discipline and unshakeable onstage sangfroid. (Her lisping, drawling, robotically repressing Jodie Foster–as–Clarice is one of those rare impressions that takes on a life of its own.) And second, to Jonathan Demme, for making a movie (25 years old now) so brain-searing that its story still holds you rapt, even in fully ironized form.
But perhaps your bachelorette party/drunken night out is in search of musical diversions slightly more G-rated. Voca People, an a cappella ensemble act from Israel (already a viral YouTube sensation), is not the sort of show I’d seek out on my own. (In fact, I’d been actively warned off it by a group of downtown comedians for whom the phrases “a cappella” and “audience participation” herald a night of pure hell.) The Voca People are essentially a whiteface Blue Man Group: “aliens” who dress like sperm and speak only a deep-space dialect of Esperanto — and the intergalactic language of “musica!” of course. They’re here to sample the music of our planet (“Your musica very goooooood!”) and, apparently, to try haplessly to mate. They’re dressed in androgynous Crest-bleached suits, but they’re definitely a two-gendered group (five men, three women), which allows them to reach an upper register not dreamed of by the likes of Rockapella. The Vocas are all muscular singers — an order of magnitude better than your college a cappella squad, in other words — and they forcefully execute Shai Fishman’s inventive, rhythmically playful musical arrangements of slightly shopworn top-40 hits, movie themes, and other middle-of-the-median-of-the-mainstream staples. Whether or not you appreciate their oft-bravura song stylings depends entirely on your openness to cutesy panto-gibberish, Ewok-y clowning, and widespread audience molestation. (Sit on an aisle, and you’re basically asking for it.) The “plot” involves the refueling of the Voca spacecraft with our planet’s musical “energia!” — which made me think of how much “energia” was being wasted over-amplifying and over-reverbing the ensemble’s plenty-strong voices: When the levels go into the red, there’s a smudgy quality to their white wall of sound, and we look around to see if the Plastic Ono Band has also landed somewhere nearby. But most of the time, the Vocas stick to midrange, in both taste and intensity. They seem to come from a planet that possesses only two radio stations: lite-FM and the Boston Pops. (Their climax, for reasons I cannot begin to guess at, is an entirely unironic cover of “We Are the World.”) Children and the gently inebriated are the least likely to overthink this: Just make sure their earplugs are in when the volume knobs go to eleven. The Vocas, you’ll notice, don’t have ears. Maybe they don’t understand the delicacy of the human tympanic membrane.
SILENCE! is running at Theater 80 through August 27; Voca People is at the Westside Theatre (Upstairs) through July 24