Thirty years ago, Sam Shepard wrote a lengthy one-act play called Suicide in B Flat, an absurdist whodunit that probed existential questions and the nature of jazz music, and (true to Shepardian form) evoked ironic, semi-remote aspects of pop culture. For example, Gabby Hayes—remember the bearded, terbacky-chewing old codger who served as movie sidekick to Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy? If you don’t, you’re no worse off than Shepard’s characters, most of whom were sufficiently baffled even back then.
It’s impossible not to see some kind of spiritual link between Shepard and Jeremy Childs, chief creator of Zombies Can’t Climb, the new Western-themed musical now playing at the Belcourt Theatre. Childs has trolled strange waters before, with locally produced plays such as The Vampire Monologues and Palisades, and he clearly has a gift—not unlike Shepard—for exploiting his own darkly whimsical sensitivities and lampooning cheesy elements of American life.
Here, he throws his audience back into the 1870s, where a Clint Eastwood-style, gun-toting stranger is trapped atop an old church with a grizzled, chaps-clad varmint named Pacer (who, coincidentally or not, seems a lot like Gabby Hayes). The cowboys are fighting off a posse of zombies that surrounds them below, and they’re soon to be joined by a pregnant prostitute named Espruhkita, and later by a rotund couple who are driving a Christmas train headed for Apache territory.
Pacer has named the churchtop refuge “God’s Little Acre,” which suggests Childs is referencing Erskine Caldwell, author of the 1933 novel of the same name. Caldwell was acknowledged as a master of rural ribaldry whose unpredictably plotted tales of social realism explored the poor, sex and violence, and the grotesque. Childs likes grotesque, and he has some fun with it in Zombies, which was co-written with his brother Josh. Add the Americana-flavored score by Jeff Boyet, and you have an unlikely piece of musical theater that looks better on paper probably than it does in this production.
It certainly sounds better on the CD being sold in the lobby. Featuring top-notch production by Robert Ellis Orrall and Capers “Tex” Flen, the album offers fuller, edgier arrangements and vocals (by a totally different group of singers) that far outstrip what we get onstage.
While uncredited cast members wander out in front of the audience doing their best Night of the Living Dead imitation, actors Brandon Boyd, Jennifer Richmond, Timothy Orr-Fudge, Amanda Lamb and Derrick Phillips work the colloquial (and sometimes anachronistic) script for legit laughs before the thin plot peters out midway into Act 2, leaving the players to work what’s left of their characterizations. As the blustery, scraggly Pacer, only Phillips (in his Nashville debut) musters the consistency to completely bring off his role. Martha Wilkinson directs with an appropriate sense of stoner mirth, but you can only travel as far as your horse can carry you.
There are some amusing tunes, for instance the title cut: “Zombies can’t climb / Their coordination’s all wrong / Motor skills all disjointed / And their arms ain’t that long.” Or the power ballad, “Whore No More”: “No living on my knees / No man I have to please / No Herpes Simplex 3 or 4 / I’m a whore no more.” Then there’s “The Christmas Train,” with its loping rhythm and cornball key change. Others include “Puddin’ and Roses,” “Devoured” and “She’s Gonna Eat Me.” There’s also a version of “Silent Night” that entrances the zombies, their savage undead selves exhibiting a fleeting, pie-eyed humanity.
Author Childs has too sharp a mind for this opus to be discounted entirely. The twisted set-up engages, the satirical stock characters josh around productively for a time, and the smart-alecky dialogue is clever to a point. Then remarks and lyrics related to poop and maggots and the prostitute’s gag reflex start to raise a red flag that the play, like the Christmas train, is probably headed for oblivion.