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STAGE FRIGHT: “TEETH” provides plenty to chew on

Thursday, March 28, 2024 | Reviews, Stage Fright, Theatre


The theater at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons is receiving nightly, blood-fueled standing ovations as sold-out audiences applaud in thunderous praise of the Off-Broadway house’s latest production, TEETH THE MUSICAL. The show tells the story of teenage evangelical Dawn O’Keefe (Alyse Alan Louis), leader of the abstinence-preaching youth group The Promise Keepers, who discovers something deeply surprising about herself. While blindly wading in her world of abusive purity culture and condemnation of sexual activity and women, she discovers she is a bearer of the mythical “vagina dentata” – the toothed vagina. As Dawn processes this discovery, she also begins to understand its usefulness in a world run by the oppressive religious patriarchy.

Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis) leads The Promise Keepers in praise.

Based on the 2007 cult horror film Teeth (written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein), TEETH THE MUSICAL may, at first consideration, be an odd choice for musical adaptation. In a world where easily digestible (pun intended) Hollywood crowd-pleasers are typically the movies selected for theatrical treatment, the choice to tell the story of an indie film about a vagina with teeth through song and dance might seem absurd. Yet, consider that horror and theatre have more in common than one might assume. Both provide a more cerebral and surrealist storytelling sandbox in which to play, particularly when dealing with challenging and controversial material. As Wes Craven said, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” The horror genre serves as a cathartic mirror through which we’re allowed to explore, process and discuss topics other genres are entirely unable to navigate; It brings us safely face-to-face with our inner-most fears – and what could be a more intrinsic fear than that of one’s own body in relation to sex? Unfortunately, seventeen years after its release, the challenging subject matter of TEETH is just as relevant – perhaps more so – than ever.

Pastor (Steven Pasquale) tends to his flock.

That said, anyone who knows the show’s creators may have an idea of what to expect from the musical adaptation. Composer/book writer Anna K. Jacobs is a Jonathan Larson and Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award-winner, whose musical POP! (concerning the shooting of Andy Warhol) has seen multiple award-winning productions. Book and lyrics writer Michael R. Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for his earth-shaking 2022 Broadway show A Strange Loop, which showcased in raw, unbridled honesty the lived experience of walking through the world gay and Black while maintaining one’s sense of self-identity through artistic perseverance.

Jackson and Jacobs’ exploration of religious trauma is even more brutally placed on the chopping block in TEETH THE MUSICAL, as the show mercilessly explores the oppression, hypocrisy and blame-shifting of growing up in the church. From catty youths to startlingly abusive indoctrination, the musical’s decision to place so much focus on the oppression of an overly religious upbringing may evoke comparisons to Carrie. However, while Margaret White (as iconic and terrifying as she is) borders on a cartoonish depiction of zealotry, TEETH THE MUSICAL’s universe feels more firmly planted within the fundamentalist viewpoints of modern conservative Christianity.

Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis) and Tobey (Jason Gotay) agree “Modest is Hottest.”

The show moves at a snappy pace, even at an intermissionless hour and 50 minutes. While it takes its time getting to “the good stuff” (we all know what we came here to see… and boy, howdy, do we!), it does so with deliberate intention, ensuring that audiences are invested in and concerned about its characters. While it’s still Dawn’s story, we’re given more insight into the motivations of those surrounding her than expected.

Jacobs’ score, which leaves audiences in immediate desire of a cast recording (recently announced!), places driving musical-theatre rock next to haunting, floaty choral arrangements when appropriate, juxtaposed with sudden, jaunty, toe-tapping melodies when not appropriate. In a show that evokes laughter one moment and repulsion the next, Jacobs’ music beautifully allows space for these genuinely organic tonal transitions to take place. Jackson’s lyrics are as witty as we would expect while also packing no-holds-barred sucker punches to the heart and mind (as well as more than a handful below the belt). Also, the melodic inclusion of nearly every synonym for “vagina” must be applauded. (Props for successfully pulling off a rhyme for “vagine.”) At no point does the show’s book hold back or attempt to play it safe. This is a story about rape, consent, religious trauma and female oppression. The approach to these themes is never once taken lightly, even in the show’s most uproariously funny moments – a superlative achievement.

Brad (Will O’Connolly) and his brethren receive guidance from Godfather.

Tackling the comedic-to-dramatic-to-horrifying gymnastics of the show’s crackerjack book and music is any actor’s dream. As Dawn, Louis’ portrayal runs quite the gamut throughout her journey. The opening number showcases the character’s unwavering conviction and steadfast dedication to Christ so convincingly that our heroine is practically unrecognizable by the show’s final moments. While playing the majority of the role straight, Louis manages to sneak in a couple of deliciously comedic line reads. She is vocally equipped to carry the show, and the music direction (by Patrick Sulken) allows Dawn’s vocal strength to grow alongside her strength of character.

One bold departure from the film is the musical’s depiction of disturbed stepbrother Brad (Will Connolly in a  deeply despicable and painfully pitiful portrayal), who finds himself involved in an online anti-“feminocracy” wannabe QAnon group of incels hellbent on preserving the divine right of “holy masculinity.” It’s a risky alteration that works in service of the story the show is telling.

Another deviation from the source material combines multiple male authority figures. Lucille Lortel-winner Steven Pasquale assumes multiple roles, though primarily that of Pastor (aka Brad’s father/Dawn’s stepfather), bringing the show’s religious themes home, both literally and figuratively. Among Pasqual’s other roles (and a standout moment) is his appearance as pervy gynecologist Dr. Godfrey, singing what can only be described as a missing track from Little Shop of Horrors as composed by Stephen Sondheim. (“Scoot-scoot-scoot” somehow evokes an aura of Mrs. Lovett on Skid Row.)

Ryan (Jared Loftin) comes to Jesus.

Mention must be made of Jared Loften as Ryan, whose story arc is simply too good to reveal. In addition to his effortlessly flexible vocal chops, his comedic timing and confidence allow for more than a handful of stolen scenes and a glittering showstopper of a number.

Obie-winner Sarah Benson‘s direction makes excellent use of space and provides a nuanced interpretation of the text – until nuance is no longer on the table. Despite the dismembered members of the male characters, restrained stagecraft throughout brutally punctuates the show’s outrageous finale. Raja Feather Kelly‘s choreography blends well and flows appropriately with the show’s score, though moments are reminiscent of Spring Awakening’s Tony-winning movement (not a bad thing). The inclusion of sign language perhaps makes sense in a church setting but is utilized confusingly outside of the house of God. The expertise of intimacy director Crista Marie Jackson deserves recognition, as the show never shies away from showcasing the subject matter, and all moments of sexuality are staged with well-crafted intention.

Scenic design by Adam Rigg makes savvy use of bland, dated wood paneling, accentuating an obnoxious neon cross located upstage center, while Jane Cox’ and Stacey Derosier’s lighting design keeps that wood paneling and neon cross interesting and varied throughout. Gory special effects by Jeremy Chernick provide whichever poor soul has to clean the set every night with their bloody work cut out for them.

The show’s biggest risk – and biggest payoff – is its deviation from or rather, expansion of, the film’s ending. Without spoiling it, the show takes its audience for one hell of an unexpected and blood-soaked ride, leaving them gasping and gobsmacked. Throw in a quick, cheeky nod to Carrie the Musical toward the end, and any nerd for both horror and theatre will surely be satisfied. When it comes down to it, you’re either with TEETH THE MUSICAL or you’re against it. By the time it’s reached its maelstrom of a third act, it’s too late to prepare for the storm. Sit back and let it overtake you. Just be sure to pick your jaw up off the floor as you exit the theater.

TEETH THE MUSICAL is playing at NYC’s Playwright’s Horizons. Performances have been extended for the final time through April 28th. Click here for tickets. Read RUE MORGUE’s interview with writers/composers Anna J. Jacobs and Michael R. Jackson now!

Ricky J. Duarte
Ricky is a writer, actor, singer, and the host of the "Rick or Treat Horrorcast" podcast. He lives in a super haunted apartment above a cemetery in New York City with his evil cat, Renfield, and the ghosts of reasons he moved to NYC in the first place., @RickOrTreatPod