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Theater Review: The Head! That Wouldn't Die! original, pan-tastic musical

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Vanessa Postil and Xander Layden have career-best performances in Theater Artists Olympia's "The Head! That Wouldn't Die!". Photo credit: Matt Ackerman

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My sister and I once found ourselves pulling into Winslow after 11 p.m. We were shaky from hunger, and the only place open was Denny's. The menu and décor were inviting enough, but I'd rather eat airline food than Denny's. My sister's will prevailed nonetheless. When the food arrived it was stunningly good. Turns out this manager ran his particular Denny's under an unusual contract, which gave him franchise permission but carte blanche over his own kitchen. It was among the more memorable restaurant experiences of my life.

There's no better aspect of my job than a wonderful surprise. When I heard Theater Artists Olympia was spending its limited resources on a home-grown, musical reincarnation of a schlock film so bad its own studio hated it, my heart sank. I try not to prejudge a show, but there are times when that simply can't be helped. TAO's auteur, Pug Bujeaud, had never written a musical or even music before. The Midnight Sun isn't roomy enough for musicals. I'm leery of camp because so often, storytellers use it as an excuse to celebrate and, I'm sorry to say, generate crappy entertainment. This was not shaping up well, and I hate writing negative reviews.

The Sun has been reconfigured. It's now comfy and shockingly cozy. (Usually, it's a dusty meat locker.) The video screen lit up. The cast emerged with absolute confidence. I chuckled within seconds, then laughed often and smiled throughout the rest of the show. (Credit polishes by actor/standup Morgan Picton.) Technician George Dougherty rescued a sound glitch with split-second timing. The Head! That Wouldn't Die! features career-best performances from Vanessa Postil as a head nurse and Xander Layden as a narcissistic doctor. Two actors heretofore unknown to me, John Serembe and Jesse Moore-Hendrickson, should look forward to distinguished careers on South Sound stages.

The first two songs let hooks reiterate into redundancy, but "You the Thing Inside" and "Abilene" are ready for the cast album. The costumes, by Nani Poonani of Ornatrix Couture, evoke 1950s burlesque while amplifying Heather Christopher's hourglass form and tic-free characterization. Special makeups by Jacqui Martin are conceived and deployed well. This company presents itself as "the TAO collective," and its little Head! pulses to the rockabilly beat of an ambitious, rambunctious tribe.

Bujeaud has often expressed a dream of producing The Rocky Horror Show with this collective, a goal I've greeted with frank skepticism. But Head! has the same campy, Syfy appeal as Rocky Horror; and in some ways, I like it even more. As with Olympia Family Theater's adaptation of Cinder Edna last year, judicious musical cutting could prep TAO's comic offspring for stages far and wide. It's that good. It's that funny, surprising, and warm, with nary a lick of Yuletide schmaltz. This is one of the year's most enjoyable shows.

THE HEAD! THAT WOULDN'T DIE!, 8 p.m. Dec. 11-14, 18-20, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 21, Midnight Sun Performance Space, 113 Columbia St. NW, Olympia, $15, 360.259.2743

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