Jill Valentine at the heart of 'Living Dead'

October 19, 2011

Gore, hysteria, zombies run amok, the end of the world… Can you get more over-the-top than Night of the Living Dead? You can! Musical of the Living Dead, the campy comic version of the 1968 cult movie complete with songs, manages to up the ante on the film.

A Halloween hit last fall, Musical of the Living Dead has returned to life this year—staggering with outstretched arms, half-eaten by worms—boasting even more zombies and gore. The splatter zone seating area at the Charnel House, a former funeral parlor, has gotten bigger. Some of the actors are new, and there’s a new song at the top (“Going to the Cemetery”) for Barbra, her brother Johnny, and a misbegotten squirrel in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jill Valentine is back, though, as daft innocent Barbra, as well as Jonathan Hymen as a gay hillbilly, Liz McArthur, memorably playing a pint-size zombie, and Mandy Whitenack, channeling Bette Davis as alcoholic wife Helen Cooper. (The three women are also playing now in Off Off Broadzway's Trick or Teets.)

“In the movie, Barbra really is a mess,” says Valentine of her character. “She can’t handle the situation”—being besieged by zombies in an isolated farmhouse—“so she goes catatonic. But in the play, she’s less scared than anyone else, she’s enjoying herself in a wacky way. She’s in happy land, not crazy screaming land.”

“We take it more in a funny way—and we take Barbra further, so she’s the heroine at the end. We keep her at the level of crazy, but she also pulls it together.”

Barbra is every sweet, dippy girl you’ve ever known, with a heart of gold and the fashion sense of a nerdy late-60s middle-schooler.

Valentine says that cowriter-director Marc Lewallen is “big into costumes—he has an eye for them.” (Brad M. Younts is the other writer-director, and Mary Spray supplied the songs.) “When Marc started putting my costume together, handing me items, I kept giggling. And when we went shopping for the wig, I was like, ‘Now I know who Barbra is.’ The hair is ridiculous, and when we added a big old headband, it was over-the-top ridiculous.”

In real life, Valentine is director of operations at Stage 773, which recently celebrated nearly $2 million worth of renovations. “We now have a four-theater complex: two 150-seat main stages, one 80-seat black box, and a 70-seat cabaret,” she says proudly. Her husband, Brian Peterlin, is the show’s tech guy, a member of silent sketch-comedy group Bri-Ko, and director of facilities at Stage 773.

Asked whether they have kids, Valentine says, “Yeah. Our baby is a building at 1225 W. Belmont called Stage 773.”

And in real life, “I sound like a man,” Valentine says. True—on the phone, she’s nothing like the breathy, tiny-voiced Barbra. “I wanted the character based in reality, but then I put the fluff on top.”

“Barbra and I are opposites. I’m pro-woman and strong-willed. When I was told I’d be playing someone sweet and virginal, I was like, ‘What?’ I tend to play more the sidekick.” The tough broad? “Kinda,” she says. Fortunately for Musical of the Living Dead, some of the real Valentine shines through.