Killing people is easy. To sing about it and be funny is hard. "Little Shop of Horrors" manages the trick because it's a fantasy about a man-eating plant. "Sweeney Todd" pulled it off because Stephen Sondheim is a genius (although neither Richard Eder nor Walter Kerr at the New York Times thought so when the musical opened in 1979).
Now comes the new musical "Scotland, PA," which takes the Bard's "Macbeth," sets it in rural Pennsylvania in 1975, and makes fun of an ambitious couple (Ryan McCartan and Taylor Iman Jones) who dream of operating the next McDonald's. Their eponymous restaurant is called McBeth's.
A presentation of the Roundabout Theatre Company, "Scotland, PA" opened Wednesday at Off Broadway's Laura Pels Theatre, and is based on the 2001 indie film of the same title. The film "Scotland, PA" artfully balances the whimsy of having two killers flip burgers with its gritty, grainy, faded black-and-white trailer-park mise-en-scene. The musical "Scotland, PA" is all primary colors, although Anna Louizos's set design gives it an eerie "Twin Peaks" aura before the McDonald's color scheme completely takes over.
Michael Mitnick's book for the musical turns the witches into refugees from some Renaissance fair (garish costumes by Tracy Christensen) who are really just "voices" in the head of the killer Mac. This trio is credited as the Stoners (Wonu Ogunfowora, Alysha Umphress and Kaleb Wells), and they're poor cousins to the Urchin trio in "Little Shop." Whenever Shakespeare's tale is about to take off, the Stoners materialize to wink, point fingers and underline the crimes with Day-Glo stripes.
It's also not a good idea to send up the McDonald's culture with relentlessly bouncy songs that never rise above the level of fast-food jingles from the 1970s. Last week, David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori opened their new musical, "Soft Power," giving us a song about the Electoral College. "Scotland, PA" songwriter Adam Gwon outdoes them with a song about "Drive-Thru" windows at fast-food restaurants.
Mitnick's book borrows here and there from Billy Morrissette's screenplay, and most of the better jokes go to the character Banko, played to airhead perfect by Jay Armstrong Johnson. Whether he's throwing a terrible party or not scoring with girls, Johnson brings considerable charm and great timing to his portrait of a total loser. He's different but just as good as Keanu Reeves and Sean Penn in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," only a few years older, tragically. When Johnson's character is murdered -- he's a stand-in for Banquo, after all -- the comedy of "Scotland, PA" loses its only source of oxygen.
Lonny Price directs with a retro razzmatazz as if it were 1975 and "Sweeney Todd" and "Little Shop of Horrors" had never happened. Yet.