Dead Outlaw

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Photo: Matthew Murphy Review
In some ways, the entertaining new musical “Dead Outlaw,” now at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theatre, reminds of me a good Chinese food meal: it’s very satisfying while it goes down, but only leaves you full for a couple of hours.

Undeniably, the 95-minute work, directed by the always smart David Cromer, boasts an excellent, genre-hopping score by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna (which even includes a ditty sung by Douglas McArthur!). Moreover, the work is performed exquisitely by an accomplished six-piece band (including Della Penna and the engaging Broadway veteran Jeb Brown, who acts as the show’s narrator) and a cast of seven extraordinary actors, most playing multiple roles.

The show’s first half relates the short, sad life of failed criminal Elmer McCurdy (soulfully played by “Shucked” star Andrew Durand), who dies in 1911 at the age of 30 after yet another spectacularly failed robbery. Other than his ineptitude, nothing about McCurdy’s life is all that interesting; and it’s hardly a cautionary tale. (Mama, don’t let your illegitimate babies grow up to be outlaws?) Further, while we see Elmer is a lost soul living out his childhood fantasy of being a latter-day Jesse James, he’s not exactly sympathetic.

More to the point, McCurdy would be an even smaller footnote in history had his body not been embalmed with some arsenic by a local coroner, essentially turning him into a mummy. For 60 years after his death, his corpse was used in various side shows, carnivals, B-movies and, finally, as an amusement park prop (where a worker for TV’s “Six Million Dollar Man” found him and realized what had become of McCurdy).

Indeed, it’s a little hard to know why the show’s creators, including book writer Itamar Moses (who seems to have used up all of his words on “The Ally”), felt this mostly-true-life tale was so compelling. It’s an interesting story in its own way, but I wish the show had something more revelatory to say about America’s fascination with the macabre and minor celebrities, or the fact that greedy bastards lurk in and around every corner.

Fortunately, there’s a first-rate score to keep one’s mind occupied. The barn-burning, nihilistic “Dead,” led by Brown, references everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Bert Convy to John Gotti, occasionally eliciting outright guffaws from the audience. The sublime Eddie Cooper, as the well-meaning local Oklahoma coroner, brings down the house with the vaudevillian “Something from Nothing,” while Thom Sesma, as soft-spoken Los Angeles coroner Thomas Noguchi, lights up the stage with a Sinatra-like turn on “Up to the Stars,” a boast about the famous corpses he’s worked on.

The energetic Trent Saunders shines in the story song “Andy Payne,” a tale of a marathon runner whose life briefly intersects with McCurdy’s mummy. Meanwhile, Julia Knitel touches our hearts more than once; first, as Elmer’s sadder but wiser ex-girlfriend Maggie in “A Stranger” and, later, as the unhappy teen Millicent – who relates in her own way to the mummified McCurdy – in the touching “Millicent’s Song.”

For his part, Durand gets to voice plenty of McCurdy’s conflicted feelings in a variety of country-western-inspired tunes, from the scorching “Killed A Man in Maine” to the sorrowful “No One Knows Your Name,” further cementing his status as one of musical theater’s most appealing leading men.

Dead men may tell no tales, but stories about dead men aren’t always as lively as “Dead Outlaw.”

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 3/10/2024
Closing 4/14/2024

Theatre Info
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10012