By Olivia Popp
These days, it’s all about turning things into musicals – history (“Hamilton”), graphic novels (“Fun Home”) and even thrillers (“Silence! The Musical” – now playing at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco). “Silence!” in particular spoon-feeds the audience two hours of unabashedly blunt “Silence of the Lambs” references and self-referential humor bordering on the crude, but manages to spin it into a surprisingly tasteful and faithful adaptation of the famous 1991 Jonathan Demme film.
Originally created in 2005, “Silence!” started off-off-Broadway and eventually made its way to off-Broadway and a number of productions around the company. In the San Francisco iteration of the musical, produced by Cloud 9 Theatricals and Ray of Light Theater, the most notable elements are the set design by Kuo-Hao Lo and lighting design by Michael Ramsaur. The set and lighting are carefully crafted so that, even on the extremely tiny Victoria Theatre stage, the production appears spacious enough for 10 people to move and dance around comfortably. On each side are sliding, partitioned panels that function as jail cells, doors and windows, which cast members wheel around the stage and incorporate into musical numbers. Some of the more unconventional elements of the set design include a water well, which consists of a foam cylinder in which a cast member sits, and this doubles as comedic effect when the performer literally picks up the cylinder by hidden handles and runs around the stage with it. Coupled with the innovative lighting design, which consists of multiple lighting colors and directed spotlights on emphasized members of the company, the stage is rendered remarkably large and sufficient for the production.
The audience members who knew “Silence of the Lambs” by heart were clearly the most entertained by the musical. Although I had watched the film a long time ago and consider myself a fan, the pacing of the show zipped by so fast that I occasionally found myself swept far too quickly along by the visual and auditory elements to process what was happening. The many inside jokes and references may have also gotten lost on members who did not know the plot of “Lambs” at all. Nevertheless, for the average spectator with an even vague knowledge of “Silence of the Lambs,” the musical puts in enough humorous tidbits and sexual innuendos to make it enjoyable, turning character behavior from the original film into caricatured, parodied performances that audiences could enjoy.
“Silence!” also makes excellent use of the standard conventions of the musical genre while also putting a satirical spin on them. The most memorable of these moments is the reprise of the song “Catherine,” in which the script calls for the song to be reprised not once, but about five times throughout the course of the production. The actress operatically sings the phrase “Catherine, Catherine” over and over again until the audience breaks down in hysterics. Strong, bold performances by Anne Norland (Clarice Starling) and Scott Hayes (Hannibal Lecter) allow the audience to fully let go of the fact that the film is in fact a horror-thriller and make fun of the premise and characterization of the leads. The members of the ensemble, often dressing as literal lambs, add another fun element to the production, serving as a Greek chorus at times and as casual spectators at others.
While the book felt rushed overall, the production itself must be looked at within the context in which it is presented: to those who know and love the film. The music and lyrics add to the production quality, serving up creative rhyme schemes and catchy tunes that supplement the already busy plot line. For me, a viewer who values so-called “intellectual comedy” and is often quick to criticize unsuccessful and crass satires, “Silence!” does indeed have its moments of (near) nudity and cringeworthy double entendres, but the musical does a nice job of balancing them with references that are actually parodies of cinematic content, such as Clarice’s accent and her wig-like hair. Ultimately, with a satirical production like “Silence!” I have to remember to sit back, have fun and take it all at face value.