Deep inside Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, past the skyward expanding parlor room, past the ghosts materializing in mirrors, there is a room where the dead dance. In that ballroom, an all-out specter soiree percolates with (holographic) apparitions waltzing around dinner tables, hanging from chandeliers, and partying in ways only the undead can.
On Friday night, Dead Man's Bones brought the Haunted Mansion to Bob Baker's Marionette Theater and unleashed a spectacle one part Screamin' Jay Hawkins, two parts Tim Burton, for a completely magical night of playful phantasmagoria. The performance joined together Dead Man's Bones–the moody, zombie-obsessed project concocted by actors Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields–and the puppet menagerie of the 85 year-old Baker's historic children's theater. The band wrote the tale of a beautiful belle's love affair with a mysterious man from beyond the grave, and the theaters dexterous puppeteers deftly pulled the strings that brought these characters to life. While the unlikely lovers danced and romped through the underworld, an audience of young kids sat crossed-legged on the floor, as Dead Man's Bones provided the soundtrack, Shields on drums, Gosling on keys and guitar, both trading off on vocals.
Behind the sashaying neon-skeletons and swirling glow-in-the-dark ghosts, Dead Man's Bones was presented like a diorama or music box, surrounded by strands of lights and a projection of a ominous starry night. The band itself was not the centerpiece of the night; blurred into the background, it was the engine driving the multimedia performance that tipped a hat to 50's rock and grade-school performances. Imagine Tom Waits' musical, “Black Rider” performed in the auditorium during lunch hour. The spirit of school was further enriched by the Silver Lake Children's choir, whose young members–dressed like a small army of Draculas and skeletons–clapped and added backing vocals to the swaying “My Body's a Zombie for You” and the Arcade Fire-styled rocker, “Pa-Pa Power.”
As Gosling looked back from his upright piano, leading the kids in the chorus, the youngsters' voices soared and one tiny boy with werewolf gloves, burst into an accurate rendition of the “Running Man” (way before his time, by the way) and executed a full-hearted rendition of breakdancing classic,”the worm.” For the adults in the audience, this was a conduit to the past, a time then where monsters loomed in darkened closets and mysteries hid in the unknown under the bed. But the audience of floor-sitting children–especially the kid with the Daniel Boone hat, laying on his stomach, kicking his cowboy boots in the air–seemed to be engrossed in the spectacle as much as the adults. As an exclusively analog event–other than the digital projection of a short black and white film (maybe Super-8) of adolescent ghost-hunters–the performance achieved the impossible in the Xbox era: holding kids' attention. But how could they not be enraptured with the spectacle of a girl in world where anything is possible, and the simple songs about about dreams and nightmares? Whether ghosts spun above the children's heads or zombies crawled across the floor, Dead Man's Bones, like the Haunted Mansion, unveiled surprises around every corner, simultaneously sweet and spooky, heart-stirring and imaginative; a wonderful requiem to our forgotten fear of the dark.