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Dead Outlaw

A folksy retelling of the haplessly heinous Elmer McCurdy's true life and post-life story with a score by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna.

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Andrew Durand and Jeb Brown in a scene from the new Audible Theater musical “Dead Outlaw” at the Minetta Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

True to its disreputable title, the new musical Dead Outlaw is both visually unruly and dramatically inert, with its biggest victim being a marginalized cast, most of whom are treated like interchangeable participants in a radio play. Thanks to a propulsively catchy score dripping in Americana from David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna, Dead Outlaw, the first musical ever commissioned by the podcast company Audible, might work better through a pair of earbuds. But, of course, that’s not what those theatrical desperados promised the audience.

Conceived by Yazbek, the show is structured as a folksy retelling of the haplessly heinous Elmer McCurdy’s life and post-life story, with the unbelievably true and undeniably dead portion reaching its final chapter after a prop person discovered Elmer’s mummified corpse in 1976 on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Unfortunately, Yazbek’s collaborators from the Tony-winning The Band’s Visit–book writer Itamar Moses and director David Cromer–are decidedly second fiddles this time around, adding little to the proceedings to make Dead Outlaw notable as anything other than a pretty solid concept album, especially as performed by an indefatigable combo that includes Della Penna belting out some of his own lyrics and strumming multiple instruments.

Erik Della Penna, Julia Knitel and Andrew Durand in a scene from the new Audible Theater musical “Dead Outlaw” at the Minetta Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Dominating the stage in a gigantic wheeling box that has all the aesthetic charm of an unfinished basement (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado), Della Penna and his blisteringly rockin’ cohorts offer the cast several opportunities to improve their cardio health pushing the wheeling box back and forth. That occasionally, but not always, leaves Cromer enough room to block a scene, a fight for space that only becomes somewhat fair after a greedy succession of cultural bottom feeders stand the embalmed McCurdy in a vertical wooden coffin. Meanwhile, in between harshly sung reminders that we’re all going to die–even the famous (say it ain’t so!)–a straight-shooting narrator (Jeb Brown) aims to convince us that McCurdy got a raw deal from the start of his existence to way past its finish.

That’s easy enough to do, particularly as the woeful details of McCurdy’s cut-short life are added to the posthumous ones. Born illegitimately, in 1880, McCurdy would not learn about that adverb until one transformative day when the woman he believed to be his mother informed him that she was, in fact, his aunt. To make matters worse, the recent death of McCurdy’s dad-turned-uncle resulted in his now more distant relative kicking him to the curb, where his real mother was waiting to assume responsibility for his maturation toward anger, alcoholism, and the army. That’s not to say things were hopeless: on McCurdy’s still-breathing journey from his birthplace in Maine to an ignominious demise in Oklahoma, in 1911, there is a chance for redemption through that old and faithful standby: the love of a good woman. But McCurdy chucks that away to become a bumbling bank and train robber whose calling card is using far too much nitroglycerine to crack safes. Surprisingly, it wasn’t McCurdy’s poor detonation skills acquired from his military days that did him in but, rather, a shootout with a sheriff’s posse who never had to fear McCurdy’s equally questionable marksmanship.

Andrew Durand (center) with Jeb Brown and Ken Marks in a scene from the new Audible Theater musical “Dead Outlaw” at the Minetta Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

As McCurdy, Andrew Durand is a put-upon wonder, who gives a charismatic lead performance–his only responsibility in the show–despite being relegated to the stage’s nooks and crannies. Evoking his country-bumpkin disposition from Shucked, he supinely croons an opening campfire number, “The Stars are Bright,” on top of the band’s wheeling box while tucked just beneath the theater’s lighting rig. A concluding curse effectively breaks the lingering impulse to associate Durand with his character from that other musical’s corny heartland, but it also unintentionally serves as an effective exclamation for everything Durand is about to endure.

Soon shunted to the far side of the stage, Durand’s acting is deemphasized as McCurdy hears the truth about his parentage, though Durand is still luckier than the jumble of indiscernible actors surrounding him during this scene whose efforts are largely obscured in shadow (lighting design by Heather Gilbert). As for Durand’s own greatest mistreatment, that comes when he has to interminably portray the not-so-dearly departed McCurdy in his vertical wooden coffin. Besides being a lifeless joke that goes on much too long, it’s also, more obscenely, one that ostentatiously wastes Durand’s talent.

Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand and Eddie Cooper in a scene from the new Audible Theater musical “Dead Outlaw” at the Minetta Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

As for the rest of the cast, they’re saddled with presenting a vast array of characters whose development substantially ends when the narrator introduces them. Fairing best is Julia Knitel, the show’s lone female actor, who gets to generate some Oedipal vibes, and even less socially acceptable feelings, through depictions of McCurdy’s fake mom as well as his love interests in both life and death. To be honest, the latter relationship gets caught in the friend zone, but there definitely is at least an emotional bond between McCurdy’s corpse and the daughter of the B-movie creator Dwain Esper (Eddie Cooper) who displayed McCurdy in cinema lobbies during screenings of his films, billing him as “a victim of horrific native rights” for Curse of the Ubangi and a syphilis fatality for Sex Madness. In between these public appearances, for some reason, Esper kept the slowly decaying body in his house.

Whatever the macabre truth–which our earnest narrator keeps hedging–Yazbek, Della Penna, Moses, and Cromer are absolutely against Esper’s type of crude exploitation, in which the tragic history of an actual person is used to sell tickets. Now sit back and enjoy a swinging number from Thomas Noguchi (Thom Sesma), the Los Angeles County Coroner for McCurdy’s 1976 autopsy, as he name drops dead celebrities–Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, and Sharon Tate– who have appeared on his slab. That’s okay, right?

Dead Outlaw (through April 14, 2024)

Audible Theater

Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission

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