Off-Broadway Review

Outlaw, Sign: Dark Satire, Tired Jukebox

In this crowded Broadway season of movie adaptations, revivals and Off-Broadway transfers, the most original and captivating tuner so far in 2023-24 can be found far from Times Square at the intimate Minetta Lane Theatre. Dead Outlaw is a dark, fiercely funny satire on America’s warped obsession with crime, fame and death. Based on a true story, the titular stiff is one Elmer McCurdy, a small-time, incompetent train robber whose mummified cadaver is discovered in an amusement park horror ride in 1976. The journey from the desolate lawless West of the early 20th century to that sad amusement pier is one of desperation, alienation and longing to fit in.

Dead Outlaw
Andrew Durand and Jeb Brown in Dead Outlaw.
Credit: Matthew Murphy

This unusual reality-based material is given an imaginative production by David Cromer with a lean muscular book by Itamar Moses and a rock-infused, pulsating score by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna (Yazbek is credited with conceiving the show). Cromer places the action on set designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s wooden, mobile revolving bandstand which resembles a locomotive box car. Heather Gilbert’s lighting sets the garish, ghoulish mood and Sarah Lux’s costumes place us in the proper time period.

Led by folksy, magnetic Jeb Brown who acts as narrator, the onstage band begins the circuitous narrative of Elmer who flees a loveless childhood in Maine to lead a rootless, alcoholic existence. Andre Durand captures Elmer’s volcanic anger and jittery restlessness perfectly—and plays the most eloquent dead body in recent musical theater memory. After a brief attempt at normalcy with a steady girl and a decent job as a plumber, he erupts into a path of singularly inept banditry. Moses mines dark comedy as Elmer commits one screwed-up felony after another.

Dead Outlaw
Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand, and Eddie Cooper in Dead Outlaw.
Credit: Matthew Murphy

After losing his life in a shoot-out with the law, Elmer’s corpse changes hands numerous times, progressing from sideshow attraction to movie prop to horror-ride background dummy. Along the way, Yazbeck and Della Penna’s clever score shifts gears and genres, depending on the setting. We get melancholy country as Elmer’s lady friend laments their short-lived romance and later a sweet pop ballad delivered by the lonely daughter of the grade-B moviemaker handing Elmer’s remains. Both are beautifully sung by Julia Knitel. There’s also a very funny Vegas lounge parody on celebrity deaths reminiscent of the satire in Sondheim’s Assassins, smartly put over by Thom Sesma as the famous L.A. coroner Thomas Noguchi. Trent Saunders has an affecting extended solo as a Native American athlete who shuns the tawdry glitter associated with the world of showmen who exploit Elmer’s body. Eddie Cooper, Dashiell Eaves, and Ken Marks complete the sharp cast, playing multiple roles ably. Throughout the show, the onstage band functions as a kind of rock Greek chorus, reminding us that the dead outlaw’s fate will sooner or later be ours.

A Sign of the Times
Crystal Lucas-Perry and Chilina Kennedy in A Sign of the Times.
Credit: Jeremy Daniel

In much more conventional Off-Broadway show, it’s back to the jukebox. A Sign of the Times, at New World Stages, is the latest in a seemingly endless parade of shows made up of pop hits from either a particular time period, or from a particular artist. This time it’s not even entirely from one artist. Most of the songs here were made famous by Petula Clark in the early 1960s, the rest are songs that were on the radio at around the same time Clark was topping the charts. The songs are catchy and nostalgia-inducing (“Downtown” is one of my favorites from childhood), but the paper-thin story surrounding them is predictable and shallow.

Lindsey Hope Pearlman’s book follows aspiring photographer Cindy from suburban Ohio to hip, happening NYC, and lightly touches on the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Liberation, the Vietnam War, the advertising world of Mad Men, and even Gay Power (Richard J. Robin is credited with creating the story.)

Sign of the Times
The cast of A Sign of the Times.
Credit: Jeremy Daniels

The majority of the numbers are fairly routinely staged by director Gabriel Barre and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter with few surprises, but there was one stand-out—“The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss).” Cindy and her roommate Tanya are comparing the romantic intentions of their respective beaus and start the song as it were a test in a women’s magazine like Cosmo. Suddenly their apartment window is transformed into the magazine cover and three of the ladies of chorus emerge dressed in lab coats and armed with clipboards to sing back-up. It’s clever, fun and adorable, unlike too much of the rest of the show.

Fortunately, Chillina Kennedy as Cindy and Crystal Lucas-Perry as Tanya sport impressive pipes and acting skills to enliven their paper-doll roles. Kennedy is particularly effective in a powerful rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” and Lucas-Perry is smashing in all of her numbers such as “Rescue Me” and “Something’s Got a Hold of Me.” If your standards aren’t particularly high, a stop at this Sign would not be unpleasant, but hardly memorable.

Dead Outlaw: March 10—April 14. Audible at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC. Running time: one hour and 40 mins. with no intermission.

A Sign of the Times: Feb. 22—June 2. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission.

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