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Dead Outlaw

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 10, 2024

Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand, and Eddie Cooper
Photo by Matthew Murphy
If you appreciate macabre stories, here's one you might enjoy: In 1976, a teamster working on an episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man" made a gruesome discovery. One of the dummies hanging from the gallows of a Long Beach amusement park ride wasn't a wax mannequin or a plastic puppet, but the mummified remains of a man who had died more than fifty years before. Forensics discovered that the corpse, painted with Day-Glo red and hanging by a noose, was Elmer McCurdy, a forgotten and rather inept bandit from the turn of the twentieth century. The short life and long death in which McCurdy's corpse traversed the country and ended up in the Laff in the Dark thrill ride is the subject of Dead Outlaw, the ghoulish and exhilarating new musical produced by Audible Theater at the Minetta Lane. Although based on a true story, the show is a fantastic and biting satire on American greed and capitalism as if filtered through the gothic narrative of a Carson McCullers novel.

With music and lyrics by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna and a book by Itamar Moses (whose play The Ally is currently running at the Public Theater), Dead Outlaw combines the kicks of an amusement-park funhouse with a rollicking musical smorgasbord featured in the best of the Grand Ole Opry shows. Presided over by a Bandleader/ Narrator (Jeb Brown), the story of Elmer McCurdy (Andrew Durand) is presented through a series of vignettes and songs.

Raised in Searsmont, Maine, in 1880, McCurdy had a rather unremarkable childhood even as he fantasized about achieving the notoriety of Jesse James. When his father (Ken Marks) dies, McCurdy's mother (Julia Knitel) reveals that his oddball aunt is his biological mother and he will go and live with her. "Maybe," as the Bandleader queries, "he was just wired that way" or "maybe there was no reason at all," but McCurdy's adolescence is marked by violence and petty crimes. And as he gets older, he turns to drink, which makes him even more brutal.

Rootless and abandoned, the young McCurdy hits the road and heads South and then West. He lands in Iola, Kansas, where he gets a job as a plumber and takes a room in the local boardinghouse. Now calling himself Frank Curtis, McCurdy works alongside the plumber's dimwitted assistant Louis (Dashiell Eaves), and he finds fleeting domestic happiness with the boardinghouse owner's daughter, Maggie (Knitel). McCurdy takes up drinking again, and once more hits the road.

He becomes a coal miner in Carterville, Missouri, and then does a three-year stint in the army, where he learns how to make explosives. A night of drinking and carousing with an AWOL army buddy (Trent Saunders) lands him in jail, and he meets an Oklahoma gang leader (Brown), who offers him a chance to rob trains and banks and be remembered.

It turns out, he's not very good at that and is killed in a police shoot-out. The first part of the musical concludes with an unscrupulous coroner (Eddie Cooper) performing the first autopsy on McCurdy's body and embalming the body with arsenic in hopes that family members might one day claim the remains and pay the costs incurred.

The show's second part follows the corpse (still performed, as it were, by Durand) as it moves from funeral home exhibition to carnival show to traveling side show to movie sets as a scenic prop to the previously mentioned amusement park fixture. The routes of McCurdy's post-life odyssey is determined in a second autopsy and explained by Thomas Noguchi (Thom Sesma). In his showstopping song, the Los Angeles Coroner Noguchi resembles a Las Vegas crooner as he works the stage, whipping his microphone cord a la Frank Sinatra and singing about the celebrities he's had on his gurney. Regaling the audience with his notable autopsies, he gleefully relates:

Marilyn Monroe,
When she left the show
Came to my table
Not long ago.

Our final scene,
Me and Norma Jean
End of the fable,
Tag on her toe.

Yazbeck and Della Pena's score is nothing short of electrifying. Combining elements from bluegrass, rock, jazz, and pop ballads, and performed by an outstanding on-stage six-piece band (with musical supervisor Dean Sharenow leading and with appropriately rock-concert amplification designed by Kai Harada and Joshua Millican), the show has the energy of a Marshall Tucker or Charlie Daniels Band performance with the wry musical-comedy wit of Cole Porter or Al Carmines.

David Cromer's direction and Ani Taj's movement beautifully capture the rock-concert milieu while fleshing out the characters and scenes. (Arnulfo Maldonado's moveable unit set, Heather Gilbert's alternately intimate and arena-style lighting, and Sarah Laux's mix of contemporary and period costumes help to achieve this notable balance.)

Durand, who was an adorable country hick in last season's Shucked, is outstanding as both the living and dead outlaw. When we first meet him, he sings a lovely ballad titled "The Stars Are Bright," and then punctuates the sentimental lyric, nonchalantly stating, "All right boys. Let's go rob that fuckin' train." Later he performs an explosive "Killed a Man in Maine" as if channeling Mick Jagger. Even while completely still and in unpeaceful repose, Durand's performance as the corpse seems to suggest that the character's rage might explode at any moment.

Brown holds the stage throughout and is simultaneously sardonic and engaging as the Bandleader with a hint of Johnny Cash's Man in Black persona. The rest of the cast works beautifully as an ensemble, performing several different parts each while also having the chance to show their individual talents that are perfectly suited to Yazbeck and Della Pena's varied songs.

A repeated refrain throughout Dead Outlaw is the lyric: "Your mama's dead/ Your daddy's dead/ And so are you, and so are you-woo." As the houselights come up, and after the Bandleader has pronounced the entire audience dead, it's hard not to feel at the end of the beguiling show perhaps even a bit more alive than a few hours before.

Dead Outlaw
Through April 7, 2024
Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: