DEAD OUTLAW Outsmarts Life After Death — Review


Julia Knitel and Andrew Durand | Photo: Matthew Murphy

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 11, 2024 11:45 AM

A rollicking dark ride through the underbelly of American entertainment, the new musical Dead Outlaw follows the life, death, and macabrely successful second act of Elmer McCurdy, a turn-of-the-century train robber whose mummified body became a traveling oddity through a serendipitous mix of greed and rubbernecking.

Andrew Durand plays the real-life outlaw (1880–1911), who hopped a westbound train out of his turbulent Maine childhood and began a series of bumbling attempts to join the legendary ranks of Jesse James. Despite Durand’s fine angry-white-kid performance, the show really comes to life after he’s shot dead by a police posse and propped up, for some 45 minutes, on an upright coffin. 

Before then, Itamar Moses’ book waffles between presenting his life as a Coens-style farce – a very funny series of explosive tests, supported by Ken Marks’ Looney Tunes-ish lieutenant – or as an earnest look at dashed American dreams. The country-western score, by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna (who also features in the onstage band), fares better in this regard, capturing different aspects of our attraction to parasocial relationships.

It does this poignantly, like the two mournful country-western ballads emotively sung by Julia Knitel (and primed for Kacey Musgraves to cover); and delightfully acerbically, as in morgue director Eddie Cooper’s lightbulb-moment decision to charge admission once urban legends around McCurdy’s exploits begin to attract locals and, decades later, Los Angeles coroner Thom Sesma’s sleazy, Vegas-style ode to our morbid love for spectacular deaths, which namechecks Sharon Tate and Marilyn Monroe.

Andrew Durand | Photo: Matthew Murphy

By then, McCurdy’s corpse had had quite the odyssey, and Moses’ book cleverly traces its journey alongside a history of American smut. After going unclaimed for years, his body was purchased by two carnies (Sesma and Dashiell Eaves; each cast member, save for Durand, plays multiple characters), who then sold him to a sports agent looking to book attractions to accompany his upcoming Trans-American Footrace, a coast-to-coast marathon meant to advertise the new Route 66.

In a slight detour into They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? territory, we’re introduced to Andy Payne, the race’s eventual winner energetically played by Trent Saunders. His path to glory mirrors the decades of conniving and striving upon which the musical’s bandleader, embodied here by Jeb Brown, winkingly comments.

Exploitation films, Long Beach amusement park rides, and The Six Million Dollar Man come to figure in McCurdy’s story, briskly shepherded by David Cromer’s direction on Arnulfo Maldonado’s roving boxcar set and lit with ghastly carnival footlights by Heather Gilbert. Though the show’s lovingly sordid second half is a marked improvement from its first, its writers’ blunt, comic language craft a joyous look at an American narrative far stranger than fiction.

Dead Outlaw is in performance through April 7, 2024 at the Minetta Lane Theatre on Minetta Lane in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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