For Rivertown Theaters’ “Die Die Birdie,” Gary Rucker’s Top 5 zombie stories

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WHAT: Rivertown Theaters diverges for a zombie-fied version of the classic Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” Gary Rucker directs Trevor Brown, Bryce Slocumb, Abby Botnick, Kyle Daigrepont, Helen Blanke and Haley Nicole Taylor
WHEN: Fri.-Sat. (May 26-27), 8 p.m.; Sun. (May 28), 2 p.m.
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
MORE INFO: Visit the Rivertown Theaters website

One of the things that makes productions at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts so compelling to watch is how they bring fresh ideas to classic works. But with “Bye Bye Birdie,” they are going the extra mile. In what might qualify as the ultimate example of lagniappe, director Gary Rucker is presenting a bonus weekend of performances with the show reconfigured as a zombie story, “Die Die Birdie.” Here he delivers his Top 5 zombie stories of all time, prefaced with one of the funnier artist statements I have seen.


Gary Rucker, transitioning zombie

In the early 2000s, over way too many beers, some friends and I got on the subject of how terrible puberty was for each one of us. My own experience was horrifying — bad skin, crackly voice, gangly limbs, hungry all the time, listless … it was terrible. I brought up the fact that hitting puberty was a lot like turning into a zombie. We all ran with that premise for a bit, eventually said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. Not long after that, I happen to be listening to some random show tunes and “Bye Bye Birdie” came on, specifically the song “Put on a Happy Face.” I imagined how funny it would be if the little girls Albert was so desperately trying to cheer up were actually zombies but he had no idea. This tickled me to no end. It suddenly occurred to me that “Bye Bye Birdie” would actually make a pretty terrific zombie story. The themes are already pretty much laid out in the original text, and even the lyrics of the songs fit the new interpretation perfectly. It became my mission.

Over the next 17 or so years, I tried to figure out any way I could to present “Bye Bye Birdie” as a zombie musical. The key would be to stay true to the original work without changing a single word of dialogue or lyric. I would direct the show traditionally, and then convert the exact same production into a vehicle for a zombie apocalypse. Same cast, same technical elements … same story. Only now, there’s a new threat.

The problem was always the cost and risk of mounting such a wacky concept. Luckily, I found a loophole. Since my partner Kelly and I are now in charge of The Rivertown Theaters in Kenner, it was a no-brainer (pun) to present the traditional version of “Bye Bye Birdie” as part of our main stage season, and since the show would already be paid for, there would be very little risk in running it for one weekend with some zombie visitors. I told my son all about this on a car trip and he said, “You should call it “Die Die Birdie.”

Yes I should, son. Yes I should.

“So how do you add zombies to Birdie? Is everyone just dead now?”

[Learn more: Ted Mahne reviews “Bye Bye Birdie”]

That’s the question I get the most … and without ruining the surprise of the show … no, not at all. There’s a whole through line and rules just like in any regular zombie movie. They arrive, they kill some people, they’re dealt with. I really wish I could say more without giving too much away but I will say that my dream of watching Albert try to cheer up two dead girls has come true. And it’s as funny as I thought it was. Please come see it. I’ll even throw in a discount code! At checkout use the code word “ZOMBIE” for $15 tickets. I promise it’s worth every penny.

OK, so now onto the point of this whole thing: my top five zombie movies! These aren’t the most traditional choices but each movie has inspired me in directing “Die Die Birdie” in some way. There are even a few “Easter eggs” in the show … see if you can spot them.

“SHAUN OF THE DEAD” — Not only my favorite zombie movie, but also one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s the most like what I’m trying to present. I love how Edgar Wright shot a scene as a normal, ordinary day and then shot basically the same exact scene after the zombies had arrived. It completely encouraged me in trying to tell Birdie two different ways. It’s chock full of its own set of Easter eggs as well. This one is paid a pretty big homage in “Die Die Birdie.” Also it kicked off the Cornetto Trilogy, and any time Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get together you know good things are bound to happen. Also, the only zombie movie to say zombie!

“WARM BODIES” — “Romeo and Juliet” told as a zombie love story. I was prepared to hate this movie, as I was dragged to it, but I ultimately really loved it. I had no idea it was based on “Romeo and Juliet” when I went in, and although the characters are clearly named R, Julie, Nora (Nurse), Perry (Paris), M (Mercutio), it took me about half the movie to put it together. Nicholas Hoult is particularly good in this. Also, the dialogue between the zombies is particularly funny.

“ZOMBIELAND” — “Holy crap, the zombies are running!” It’s a great, well-told and well-directed adventure movie that is touching and very funny. And with a fantastic cameo! **NO SPOILERS** Also, this is the movie that really kicked off Jesse Eisenberg’s career and he’s just great in it. Woody Harrelson is at his most Woody Harrelson, and his character’s quest for Twinkies is gold. My favorite part of the movie is the Zombie Tips that Jesse Eisenberg’s character explains to us throughout the movie. My favorite is Rule No. 1: Cardio. I wouldn’t need any other rules. I’d be dead instantly.

“THE WALKING DEAD” (THE BOOK) — I know books don’t really count but it’s probably the best ongoing zombie story ever told. The TV show gets it right once in a while when it STICKS TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL, but nothing compares to the graphic novels. I’ve been emotionally devastated by these books … I’ve felt betrayed and heartbroken, and once actually had to put the book down and walk away because I was so upset by something that had just happened. After all this time, it still hooks me.

“DAWN OF THE DEAD” — Because George A. Romero is the master of this genre. And it premiered on my birthday, but that is literally the only reason I picked this title over any of the others. Every one of his movies is a masterpiece in zombie horror. If you want to be really scared, these are the movies for you. The zombies are terrifying … they look angry and desperate, and even though the style of the acting is a little over the top, those zombies are committed to their performances. It’s a movie very much of its time, but man is it intense.

Jon Greene’s Top 5 (or so) influences for Le Petit’s “The Musicians of Bremen: A Holiday Panto”

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Panto musical comedy written and directed by Jon Greene and starring Bob Edes Jr., AshleyRose Bailey, William Bowling, Natalie Boyd, Keith Claverie, Clint Johnson, Garrett Prejean, Michael Spara
WHERE: Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, St. Peter St.
WHEN: Dec. 14-21
TICKETS: $15/$35
MORE INFO: Visit the website

As Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré launches its holiday show, “Musicians of Bremen: A Holiday Panto,” we thought it would be a good idea to have writer-director Jon Greene offer a look into his creative process for the show. After all, Greene already had presented a “Sleeping Beauty” panto version, so this was familiar territory for him.

This particular production, which opens Friday (Dec. 16), is of course based on the popular Brothers Grimm story but serves as a wacky sequel to the original, with animal musicians working to save their nightclub from a mean neighbor. In true panto style, there will be plenty of audience participation, slapstick, and a whole lot of crazy songs.

Herewith, Greene’s own Top 5:

“YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS”: “THE CLOCK” — “In the earliest years of television there, was a level of comedic freedom that would never be the same. ‘Your Show of Shows’ featured a lineup of soon-to-be comedy icons, including Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner (still with us!). With a writing staff that included the not-yet-famous Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gilbert, and Neil Simon, ‘Your show of Shows’ was critical in helping the world of Vaudeville transition so seamlessly to the world of TV. ‘The Clock’ is a personal favorite. A simple set-up that combines physical skill at dance levels and a wonderful sense of timing. This routine influenced not one but many of the physical gags in our panto.

GROUCHO MARX, “HELLO I MUST BE GOING” FROM “ANIMAL CRACKERS” — “The logical illogic says it all. I have never laughed harder as a child than at the idea of saying one thing but meaning and doing the complete opposite. Stick around and you’ll get a special singing treat in our panto.”

HEDLEY LAMARR AND TAGGERT FROM “BLAZING SADDLES” — “No one helped American audiences bridge the comedic gap more than Mel Brooks. He has always understood the universal nature of archetypes, especially when he writes and directs his villains. Equal parts menacing and foolish, the brilliant Harvey Korman’s Hedley Lammar and his daft sidekick (played by Slim Pickens) are classic panto stock characters and share a lot of similar behaviors with our Baddie and #2.”

THE CHASES FROM “BENNY HILL” AND “WHAT’S UP, DOC?” — “If you ever saw even one Wile E. Coyote cartoon, then you’ve seen a chase. But before there were cartoons, ‘The Chase’ was already a part of comedic history. Whole movies have been written around a chase — ‘The Great Race,’ ‘Cannonball Run’ and ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ come to mind. But the best chases I know were how Benny Hill ended his show every week. And this American version from the 1960s classic ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ isn’t so bad, either. Either way, you will definitely find an outsized chase in our panto.’

THE OPENING SEQUENCE OF “BANANAS” — “Woody Allen’s slapstick comedy ‘Bananas’ is about a small Latin American country going through a military coup. But Allen does more than just make merriment; he always adds a level of intelligence to even his silliest work. Take the opening of ‘Bananas,’ in which the assassination of a country’s dictator is broadcast as if on ‘The Wide World of Sports.’ Pointed, poignant and absolutely absurd. Moments like this have always pushed me to do the same. Comedy — and especially our panto — doesn’t shy away from issues or big ideas; it skews them better than anyone.

BONUS: “VITAMEATAVEGAMIN” — “Nobody does comedy better than Lucille ball. And there are too many amazing and hilarious routines to mention but when it comes to homophones, mixed up words, and word play in general this routine takes the cake. Our panto takes its word play very seriously, and without Ms. Ball pointing us in the right direction, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Honorable mentions: Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“The Cheese Shop/Ministry of Silly Walks”), “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” (“The Duel”),“The Carol Burnett Show” (“The Dentist”)

“The Lion in Winter” queen Leslie Castay’s Top 5 royals in popular culture

15250790_10154736025909561_5339399058981059792_o “THE LION IN WINTER”
WHAT: See ’Em On Stage presents the Tony Award-winning drama. Christopher Bentivegna directs Leslie Castay, Kali Russell, Kevin Murphy, Alec Barnes, Alex Martinez Wallace, Eli Timm and Jake Wynne-Wilson
WHEN: Dec. 1-18
WHERE: Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center, 2525 Burgundy St.
TICKETS: $25-$30

There’s something very special, and very royal, about See ’Em On Stage’s production of “The Lion in Winter,” a witty tale of palace intrigue around King Henry II; his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and some nasty song with a mistress and French King thrown in for good measure. The Tony Award-winning play (written by the great James Goldman) might be better known for the Academy Award-winning film adaptation that starred a late-career Katharine Hepburn opposite young British stars Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins. It’s also noted as an inspiration for Fox’s delicious TV drama on the hip-hop world, “Empire.”

Intrigued by the staging of palace intrigue, we asked star Leslie Castay, a fittingly royal choice for Eleanor, to serve up her five favorite royals of popular culture:

AUDREY HEPBURN IN “ROMAN HOLIDAY” — The 1953 movie starring a luminous young Audrey Hepburn as a princess on the loose in Rome, accompanied by the handsome Gregory Peck and the charming Eddie Albert. Pure escapist rom-com heaven.

“SNOW WHITE”’S QUEEN — “Snow White” was the first movie I ever saw as a child and I still get chills when her beautifully evil face fills the screen.

LADY DIANA’S WEDDING DAY — Also known as “the original Kate Middleton.” Her wedding dress was the inspiration for my prom dress, along with the rest of New Orleans high school girls. (Mine was dusty rose taffeta, by the way.)

SIAN PHILLIPS AS LIVIA IN “I, CLAUDIUS” — I got hooked on the miniseries during a re-broadcast on PBS in the 1990s while I was doing summer stock in Pennsylvania. Sian Philllips’ played Livia, wife of the first Emperor of Rome Augustus, trying to elevate her son Tiberius to the throne by any means possible was deliciously evil and elegantly royal at the same time — such fun.

KATHARINE HEPBURN IN “THE LION IN WINTER” — I was in high school when my drama teacher showed us the movie one day in class. Hepburn and O’Toole’s chemistry is fantastic, and I delighted in hearing such wickedly contemporary dialogue in period costume and surroundings. Classic lines include “I’d hang you from the nipples, but you’d shock the children.” ’Nuf said.

DJ Soul Sister’s Top 5 “dream invites” to her 10th Annual Birthday Jam — living and dead


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DJ Soul Sister’s 10th Annual Birthday Jam, featuring Chuck Brown Band, New Breed Brass Band
WHEN: Fri. (Sept. 9), 10 p.m.
WHERE: Tipitina’s, 501 Napoleon Ave.
TICKETS: $20 advance, $25 at the door
MORE INFO: Visit event page

Melissa Weber, as DJ Soul Sister, has been that rare New Orleans musical artist, connecting the dots between New Orleans music to the rest of the nation in her never-ending passion to expose audiences to the deepest cuts and the rarest grooves of funk music — without ever lifting an instrument. That is, of course, if you don’t consider a turntable an instrument.

Whether as the host of WWOZ’s “Soul Power” or her “Hustle” shows at the Hi-Ho Lounge, DJ Soul Sister goes far beyond the obvious stars and hits of the genre and digs a little deeper, but always keeping the party going. Her star power has grown over the past decade to the point where she’s become a presence at festivals more known for live music, and to the point where her annual Birthday Jam has become one of the early highlights of the fall music season

On this, the eve of her 10th Annual Birthday Jam — featuring the Chuck Brown Band, backing musicians for the late go-go legend out of Washington, D.C. — we asked DJ Soul Sister for the artists, living or dead, she’d love to have on the guest list.

Chuck Brown — This is an obvious choice but, as the “Godfather” and creator of the go-go sound of Washington, D.C., that I’m dedicating my party to, he will be present in spirit. Like my Birthday Jam last year, I’m having a huge specialty birthday cake created that everyone can enjoy. I was gonna keep it a secret, but I’m too excited to hold it in any longer. This year’s cake, created by Dat Cake Place, will include 100-percent edible conga drums with a painting (again, edible) of Chuck Brown. He’s got his own lottery tickets, memorial park, statue … now he’ll be on a cake! Seriously, this is how much Chuck Brown is loved, and his music and style is so influential to me. I’m thrilled that his band (the Chuck Brown Band) and all of the other go-go bands and musicians in the D.C. area keep his sound alive some 40 years after he started it.

George Clinton — Why? Because George Clinton. Actually, now that I think about it, George has been to one of my birthday parties. Here he is with my mom at a birthday party that I threw at the New Orleans Hard Rock Cafe with other P-Funk Virgos back in 1997. (See slideshow photo.) The Funk must always be present when it comes to a birthday party of mine.

Questlove — Being that Questlove is the music lover’s ultimate music-loving artist/performer/historian/critic/writer/badass that I aspire to be when I grow up, it only makes sense that I’d invite him. Besides, any serious lover of funk music can’t resist D.C. go-go, and I know he loves it. Several years ago, I opened for The Roots at a concert in the New Orleans Main Library on Loyola, of all places. One of the songs I mixed in my set, as it came to a close, was a go-go cut called “4th Gear” by Trouble Funk (1983). When The Roots took the stage, Questlove incorporated that go-go beat in the intro. I was jumping up and down.


Slick Leo (Photo courtesy Leo Coakley)

Slick Leo of New Orleans — I’ve been talking a lot about DJ Slick Leo lately, but he is such an influence on me, even though I was pretty young when I was really exposed to him. I was too young to go see him play at the Famous Disco or places like that. But I learned about Washington, D.C. go-go music from his live on-air mixes on the long-defunct WAIL 105 FM in the mid 1980s. The station regularly had this music in rotation, songs like “Meet Me at the Go-Go” by Hot, Cold Sweat and “Let’s Get Small” by Trouble Funk. I never forgot that sound and how much I loved it, so I credit him with introducing me to go-go. Thanks to him, and my love of funk music, I’ve developed a lifelong appreciation of the music and culture of D.C. go-go, and I just want to share it with others — just like he shared it with me. People should know that he’s a legendary music figure in this city, and the fact that we can trace many New Orleanians’ knowledge of D.C. go-go directly to him is one of the reasons why.

Teena Marie — “Lady T” is my favorite female vocalist of all time, hands down. I’ve just loved her my whole life, since I was very young. It’s hilarious that I had no idea she was white until I was approaching high school. She’s one of the most soulful vocalists of all time. I opened for her a few times, but was scared to death to meet her. I don’t get very star-struck, but she’s someone I just viewed as untouchable. But, funny enough, in the months prior to her passing, we became Twitter friends — out of the blue! Like, she started following me, and we’d chat back and forth about music. And sometimes she’d DM (direct message) me, too. It was all about our appreciation of music — Linda Lewis, Linda Jones, New Birth, you name it. She loved and knew her music. After all of this communication transpired, I always thought we’d have a great time meeting in person. I do think she’d love D.C. go-go music, especially since she also played congas, which is a key instrument in the go-go sound. Plus, she loved New Orleans so much.

Read more: Check out Keith Spera’s article on the event in the New Orleans Advocate.

Playwright Gabrielle Reisman’s Top 5 influences for “Flood City,” opening The NOLA Project’s 2016-17 season

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WHAT: The NOLA Project presents its 2016-17 season opener, written by Gabrielle Reisman, directed by Mark Routhier, and starring Ashley Ricord Santos, Keith Claverie, Amy Alvarez, Trey Burvant, Ian Hoch, Jessica Lozano, Matthew Thompson
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Sept. 1-3), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Sept. 4), 2 p.m.; through Sept. 17
WHERE: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), 2800 Chartres St.
TICKETS: Thursdays and Sundays: $30 general admission & $20 for NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members. Fridays and Saturdays: $35 general admission & $25 for NPBPM. Purchase online at or by calling 504-302-9117.

“Flood City” already was remarkably timed as The NOLA Project’s 2016-17 season opener, what with its proximity to the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The recent floods in Louisiana — first in March, in north Louisiana, and the a couple weeks ago in south Louisiana — make playwright Gabrielle Reisman’s world premiere feel downright prescient. But as with lots of productions, there’s a lot more to “Flood City” than just water, as we’ll learn from Reisman after requesting her influences for this work — her third produced by The NOLA Project, which mounted “Taste in 2009 and Catch the Wall” in 2013. This production is directed by Mark Routhier. Here’s what Reisman had to say about it:

“Flood City” charts the wake of The Johnstown Flood of 1889. The flood has destroyed the bustling steel town of Johnstown, Penn., and left a motley crew of survivors and surveyors to clean up and rebuild. Meanwhile, at a bar in Johnstown a century later, laid-off steel workers wax metaphoric about past lives and future ambitions. Traversing time and space, the play is an all-too-apt mirror of our present times. It takes a darkly comic look at both the lunacy of rebuilding and the strength it takes to clean up and start over.

Though I watched a fair amount of Johnstown Flood documentaries, 1980s country music videos and revivalist church services in writing this play, these five videos most influenced the dark-hopeful magic I was trying to build in “Flood City.”

“Telephone,” Lady Gaga — These U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s version of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” may be my favorite thing on the Internet. I love the combination of completely earnest choreography and fabulous DIY costumes against the intense polish of the pop music. Add to this the fact that it was made in the strange anti-space of an occupying army base in a war zone. It’s more Dadaist than anything Lady Gaga herself could dream up. “Flood City” is about a bunch of folks making something out of nothing in the midst of disaster. It employs a similar sense of play and peril. A man moves nonchalantly through the wreckage with a pipe sticking out of his head. Two women sell bits of broken flood relics to first responders. There’s a blitheness-of-necessity inside the catastrophe.

“Don” — I’ve been enamored with the 1978 Bollywood film“Don” since I was in high school. “Don” follows a charismatic crime boss (Don), the woman who wants to see him dead, the man who begins impersonating him, and their complicated romance. I’ve spent years looking at Bollywood songs from this period because they usually involve a character singing a secret to the person the secret’s about. The person they’re singing to can totally hear the words, but it’s as if the song takes place in some sort of breakaway dream moment. When it’s over, we as audience know more about the person singing and their secret intentions, but the person who heard the song is none the wiser. In this song, the man impersonating Don is telling Don’s criminal brethren he’s not who they think he is and he is tricking them all. You can read a weird translation of it here. In “Flood City,” and in all my plays, I’m interested in the moments where characters casually break the fourth wall and the ways giving an audience secret knowledge invests them in the world. There’s also a lightness/sharpness/silliness to this video that I love so hard. We’ve been playing with that same light/sharp/silly combo as we put the play on its feet.

“Get Into the Groove,” Madonna — In “Flood City,” the survivors of the Johnstown Flood live onstage simultaneously with a dive bar of newly out-of-work steel men in 1992. When I was figuring out how these two times intersected in the play, I was listening to a lot of pop and country songs from the late 1980s and early ’90s. Writers do this sort of lucky-socks thing where we’ll hear a song that makes us see something new about our play then we obsessively listen to it on repeat like its a portal for all of our play’s secrets. Madonna’s “Get Into the Groove” was this song on this play. The upbeat call to dance was somehow the perfect discordant window to these jobless, uncertain steel men.

“Funnel of Love,” Wanda Jackson — This song makes me swoon every time I hear it. It’s sexy and a little scary. There’s queerness and down-the-rabbit-hole quality to the song that I dig so much. While “Get Into the Groove” feels like the way 1992 operates inside a story about folks in 1889, “Funnel of Love” is the way these two times are dancing up on each other: an off tempo two step between different disasters a century apart.

“Tambourine Praise,” Jacolby Parker — “Flood City” skirts a little with miracles and faith. I spent a lot of time parsing through spirituals of the late 1800s, as well as the ballads and parlor music that was written about the Johnstown Flood itself. In the end, though, the thing that spoke to me most were Baptist tambourine breaks, and the sermons that lead right up to these breaks. Of all the videos I watched, and even of my memories visiting Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the 1990s, this post by Jacolby Parker gets me the most. It is so simple and so personal and so skillful. I wanted to touch on the hope inherent in rebuilding and the way we have to give ourselves over sometimes to a higher power — the rigor and joy it takes to let go and move forward.