When you take your seat for a show called “Chainsaw: The Musical,” you expect it to deliver in fundamental ways: It better show people getting killed with chainsaws (it does), it better have some good tunes (it definitely does) and it better elicit some big laughs (oh, it does).
The Living Room world premiere of this new show by playwright Forrest Attaway and composer Eric Wesley Redding is an inventive, audacious romp directed by Missy Koonce with a strong cast and a good band. The material is inspired, vaguely, by elements of the classic/notorious slasher flick “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but this is much more interesting and complex than a mere parody.
Attaway writes two kinds of plays: serious dramas and raucous comedies. But you simply can’t take the dramatist out of the boy, even when he’s primarily writing for laughs. So what we get here is a sometimes unwieldy mix of serious intent and frivolous excess. At times it’s as silly and outrageous as you might expect something called “Chainsaw: The Musical” to be, but there are moments when it achieves honest poignancy.
In other words, it’s not like many other shows I’ve seen.
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Bob Linebarger plays Joey Delaney, a child inexplicably born as a full-grown man in the town of Cut and Shoot, Texas. His slutty mom (Laura Jacobs) and abusive dad (Mike Ott) charge admission for people to gawk at the freak of nature, but eventually the public loses interest. Mom runs off with a Mexican landscaper (Bradley Thomas) and Joey’s dad takes a new, equally slutty wife (Katie Gilchrist).
Joey seeks refuge from his abusive home life out by a lake where he meets a charming neighbor girl, Sarah (Daria LeGrand), with whom he falls in love.
The new marriage gives Joey a half-brother, Philip, played by young Cam Burns; Caleb Tracy plays the older version of the role later in the show. Eventually Joey is incarcerated in the state mental hospital, where he is tormented by a sadistic nurse (Natalie Liccardello) and proselytized by a bombastic preacher (Sebastian Smith). After years of solitary confinement and a steady regimen of drugs, Joey is released to his brother’s custody.
In the second act, most of the actors — Jacobs, Ott, Gilchrist, LeGrand, Liccardello, Smith and Tracy — return as a group of supercilious college kids who stop off in Cut and Shoot to have their van worked on. It’s not giving too much away to say that they each stumble into an unpleasant encounter with Joey and his chainsaw.
The show also has a narrator in the form of Sister Squirrel (Shon Ruffin), who is backed up a chorus of singers, the Foul-Mouthed Foxes (Kelsea McLean, Bryan LaFave and Rebecca Munoz).
This show is full of good performances, but it’s carried by two standouts: Linebarger walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy as Joey and crafts a performance that makes the character at once sympathetic and creepy; and Ruffin, a powerhouse singer, brings charisma and humor to the stage as Sister Squirrel and provides the show’s connective tissue.
Koonce has a way of tapping qualities in actors that other directors don’t, and that ability pays dividends. Gilchrist turns in one of her best comic performances. So does Liccardello, and Smith commands the stage as the Rev. McFeely.
The program doesn’t list individual song titles, although composer Redding told me after the show that the score includes 35 individual tunes. Many of them crackle and seduce the audience with inventive melodies and clever arrangements.
Linebarger’s first song in the show doesn’t come until about halfway through Act 1, but it’s a surprisingly touching ballad about solitude. Ruffin begins a major sequence in the mental hospital with a rousing gospel number that introduces the Rev. McFeely.
This is a fun show, and I hope Attaway and Redding continue working on it. It’s easy to imagine it enjoying a continuing life in regional theaters.
“Chainsaw: The Musical” runs through Oct. 31 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Call 816-533-5857 or go to thelivingroomkc.com.