Silence! The Musical gets an Off Broadway shot

Jenn Harris gets a chance to shine as a cult musical makes its long-awaited return.

PLAYBILL BUNNY Jenn Harris takes audiences down comedic rabbit holes.

PLAYBILL BUNNY Jenn Harris takes audiences down comedic rabbit holes. Photograph: Allison Michael Orenstein

The buzz you may be hearing in the downtown theater scene is the sound of Silence! about to break. And that joyful noise has been a long time coming.

Among aficionados of so-wrong-it's-right parody musicals, this wild and woolly spoof—adapted from Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning film The Silence of the Lambs—has pride of place. Silence! The Musical began as a suite of jokey songs that composer-lyricists Al and Jon Kaplan posted on their website in 2002, but really took off in 2005, when director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Altar Boyz) hired future [title of show] star Hunter Bell to adapt it for that year's Fringe Festival, where—with Jenn Harris in the Jodie Foster role of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, tracking down one serial killer with help from another—it was a breakout hit.

"It happened really quickly, which I kind of loved," notes Bell. "Had we had a four-week workshop or gone to Williamstown or something, I think we would have second-guessed ourselves. But there was no time to overanalyze, and that was joyous." The musical's long journey beyond the Fringe, however, was another matter entirely. After two years of wrangling, an open-ended run at the Bleecker Street Theatre was scheduled to begin in September 2007; but the financing dissolved at the last minute, and the production failed to materialize.

"I've never had anything not go through that has disappointed me more," says Harris. But the Silence! crew refused to quit. "It was a six-year uphill climb that Christopher made with both fists pumping in the air the whole time." After Gattelli directed a production in London in early 2010, investors finally came through for the show's long-delayed Off Broadway version, which starts previews this week at downtown's atmospheric Theatre 80.

"What's incredible, six years later, is that I think we've only lost two people in the whole transfer," Gattelli observes. "We all just keep coming back." Returning cast members include musical-theater pros Deidre Goodwin (A Chorus Line) and Stephen Bienskie (Cats), plus perennial scene-stealer Jeff Hiller (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson); new to the ensemble are Lucia Spina (Legally Blonde) and, as Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, Broadway leading man Brent Barrett (Chicago).

But Harris is the show's not-quite-secret weapon. "She can probably do no wrong in my book; I think she's perfect," raves Bell. "She's gonna be a huge star, and I can't wait for everybody to know it in the world." Gattelli is equally sold. "It's incredible to see someone that free onstage, just going for it," he says. Both men, interviewed separately, use the same word to sum her up: fearless.

"Oh my God, if you knew how much fear was inside this child," says Harris. "If I didn't combat it, I would just lie in bed. So I just kind of fake it till I make it 99 percent of the time. And in comedy, you have no idea if things are gonna work; you just gotta do it full-blown. When my performances have been really good, that's because the directors knew how to trim my fat. They put me on a butcher block and trimmed my fat!"

Tempering Silence!'s outr content with solid musical-theater craft has been part of the challenge all along for the show's creative team. This is a show, after all, whose score includes such child-unfriendly songs as "Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket" and, for Hannibal, a wistful ballad called "If I Could Smell Her Cunt"—the latter accompanied by a tender dream-ballet pas de deux. "We worked hard to not take ourselves too seriously, but at least take it seriously enough, so it wasn't a nonsensefest and you couldn't just dismiss it as a dirty joke," Bell explains.

Gattelli agrees. "I'm hoping we hit it on both levels," he says. "It is so ridiculous—Hannibal and Clarice sing, there are tap-dancing lambs—but at the same time, we're trying to do something artful, so you almost don't know how to process it." The result, Harris argues, is a show that respects its audience's intelligence. "Even the dumbest jokes in this show still make you feel like you won," she says. "You feel smart—you feel like you've got something that other people haven't got. You won!"

Harris has a long history of spreading that winning feeling. A superb comic actor across the board—she won a 2005 Lucille Lortel Award for her supporting role in Modern Orthodox—she is at her best as a parodist, most recently astonishing audiences with her Natalie Portman takedown in the hilarious cult hit Swan!!! The essence of her art, she says, involves discerning what she calls "the big wash"—the defining characteristic of her subject's style. "You take that element and you just, like, fill your body with it," she says. "It's almost like you're glowing with that one thing."

The comic essence of Harris's Clarice emerges from Foster's visible dedication to her acting. "She just works so hard in that film," she notes. "I'm so happy she did, and I'm so happy I can see a lot of it. The performance is amazing, but oh my God, you can see her working." That's the big wash, and Harris can't wait to work mischief on it. "When I find a moment that's maybe a little bit too much, I'm like, Oh, you just gave me a little Easter egg in the field—and I am on the hunt," she vows. "I'm gonna get all those fuckin' eggs. I'm gonna get 'em all. And then I'm gonna throw them at the audience."

starts Fri 24 at Theatre 80.

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