‘Dead Outlaw’ Off Broadway Review: How to Make a Musical About a Mummy

A few musical-theater morticians have fashioned an instant classic that’s very much alive and kicking

Two men stand on either side of a man in an upright coffin. The main in the coffin holds a long gun.
Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand and Eddie Cooper in "Dead Outlaw." (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The makers of the outrageous new musical “Dead Outlaw” give us the equivalent of what Alfred Hitchcock did in “Psycho” when his star Janet Leigh gets killed 40 minutes into the movie. The bumbling outlaw, Elmer “Missouri” McCurdy, can’t rob trains or blow up bank safes with any success — and is then shot dead by gunfire less than halfway through the 90-minute “Dead Outlaw.”

Where is a show supposed to go from there? Frankly, that’s where this wild ‘n’ crazy roller-coaster ride of a musical goes wonderfully off the tracks.

“Dead Outlaw” had its world premiere Sunday, presented by Audible at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

You might have your doubts about “Dead Outlaw” when McCurdy (Andrew Durand) proves to be a miserable failure in the world of crime. Itamar Moses’ book is mildly clever, much of the action told by a singing narrator (Jeb Brown). David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna’s score swerves from country to rock to bluegrass, all of it strung together by s–tkicking orchestrations.

Especially effective is Durand’s tendency, when he sings, to resemble a young Jerry Lee Lewis. However, McCurdy is such a loud loser on every level that his over-the-top act begins to grow stale rather quickly. Only half an hour into “Dead Outlaw” and you might be ready to give him the hook, and that’s when the sly makers of “Dead Outlaw” beat you to it — and shoot this creep dead. It’s the moment when their show goes from merely quirky to downright bonkers.

No longer alive, McCurdy is now a traveling-show mummy (“The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up”) that makes its way across the country in a variety of venues. I’ve buried the lede: “Dead Outlaw” tells a true story.

Unlike Janet Leigh in “Psycho,” Durand doesn’t leave the stage after McCurdy is murdered in 1911. The corpse is embalmed with arsenic and stands in an open coffin for all to see. No family member claims it, but passers-by are so intrigued they begin to pay money to gawk.

His eyes open, Durand moves only occasionally, usually to illustrate some state of mind that the narrator gives the dead body. (If ever Durand blinks, I missed it.)  If you don’t identify with this reprobate when he’s living, you will feel great compassion for him when he’s dead. Suddenly famous, the dead McCurdy gets passed from one sleazeball impresario to another.

In the 1970s, the mummified stiff continues to attract voyeurs in an amusement park spook house in Long Beach, California. Discovered by crewmembers of the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” — you can’t make this stuff up — McCurdy’s body finally ends up on the autopsy table of Los Angeles’ chief coroner Thomas Noguchi in 1976.

It’s here that Yazbek and Della Penna switch gears, writing a lounge song for the famous “coroner to the stars,” played to sleazy perfection by Thom Sesma. The tune manages to link Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Sharon Tate to the mummy in question. Yes, America is a land of the strange, the cruel, the downright sick. And the song is truly delightful.

Yazbek never repeats himself. His Broadway career started with “The Full Monty” in 2000, and along the way he has written a couple of great scores (the Tony-winning “Band’s Visit” and the wrongfully ignored “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) that bear no resemblance to his work on “Dead Outlaw,” except for the fact that he’s once again operating in top form.

Key to David Comer’s effectiveness directing here is one of the weirdest sets ever to grace an Off Broadway stage. At first glance, Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design amounts to a big box that houses the show’s five band members. It leaves almost no room for the actors to perform, so Comer relegates them to odd spaces on the peripheries of the stage: on top of the box or off to the sides, almost in the wings. It’s a crazy scheme that pays off when Durand’s life in crime goes south, and the box wanders all over the stage, pushed by the actors. Like McCurdy’s corpse on Noguchi’s table, you have to see it to believe it.

On this strange journey, Dashiell Eaves and Julia Knitel bring an inspired loopiness to a variety of characters.

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