Chicago Theatre Review
An Eye-popping Tune Fest
Return to the Forbidden Planet – Jedlicka Performing Arts Center
In 1989, British playwright and director Bob Carlton came up with the idea of adapting Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” into a musical whose score was comprised of familiar songs from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jukebox musicals had become popular in the mid-1970’s, with shows like “The Night That Made America Famous,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Leader of the Pack.” The difference in Carlton’s script is he used songs made famous by a variety of recording artists, rather than paying tribute to one single composer or singer. He also found strong similarities between the Bard’s romantic theatrical fantasy and the 1956 MGM movie of the same name, which starred Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen. Thus, this campy musical homage to the classic science fiction film was born. The show toured all over England, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, and eventually played Off Broadway in 1991 to mixed reviews.
The film’s plot becomes even more Shakespearean when Carlton changed several of the characters’ names to references from “The Tempest,” and then incorporated familiar dialogue from the Bard’s greatest hits into the script. Carlton’s pop song selections cleverly underscore the characters or plot elements. Songs like “It’s a Man’s World,” ”Young Girl,” “Good Vibrations” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” are highlights of this show.
Basically the story centers around Captain Tempest, whose spaceship is mysteriously drawn toward the planet D’Illyria, ruled by a mad scientist named Prospero. He meets the captain and his crew, accompanied by his lovely young daughter, Miranda, and his robot assistant, Ariel. It’s later learned that Captain Tempest’s feisty female Science Officer, who has escaped by shuttle craft during a meteor storm, is actually Gloria, Prospero’s estranged wife. The spaceship is suddenly attacked by a giant, squid-like monster. During this moment, Ariel reveals that his master has created a secret, mind-enhancing formula, called the X Factor, which may somehow be responsible for the tentacled creature. Add to this a love triangle between Tempest, Miranda and his ship’s chef, Cookie, as well as Gloria’s unexpected return to the spacecraft, and you have an adventure story that’s truly lost in space.
There are several talented actor/singer/dancers in this production. One of the standouts is veteran Jedlicka Renaissance man, Michael Kott, so sinister and conniving in his Ming-the- Merciless costume, as the maniacal Dr. Prospero. His soulful renditions of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “Go Now,” as well as his jazzy “Monster Mash,” give Mr. Kott ample opportunities for chewing up the stylish, futuristic scenery (designed by the always reliable Michael Nedza, with an exciting Multimedia Design, also by Mr. Kott). He’s matched by the astounding acting and vocal performance of Shana Dagny as Gloria (“G-L-O-R-I-A”). This talented diva turns the Science Officer into one sassy, sensual and seductive space scholar. Practically bursting out of her black leather bustier while writhing atop a pair of dangerously high spike-heeled boots, Ms. Dagny holds both the crew and the audience ransom.
Welcome newcomer to Jedlicka audiences is Jason Williams, as Cookie. Displaying an excellent trained, controlled voice, Mr. Williams tears up “The Shoop Shoop Song” and “She’s Not There.” Joining Ms. Dagny, the two actors beautifully harmonize in their duet “Tell Her,” making it one of the musical highlights of this production. But when Mr. Williams finally gets to cut loose with “Great Balls of Fire,” audiences see a true, rising star. And it should be added that, besides being a very charismatic young actor, Mr. Williams is also a terrific hoofer, as well.
As Captain Tempest, Timothy Sullivan, another Jedlicka newcomer, is fine, but sometimes comes off a bit stiff or uncomfortable in this leading role. He particularly has trouble reaching the high notes in some of his songs. Daniel Wilson’s Bosun is competent but a little retiring. He doesn’t really stand out in this role, perhaps intentionally; however, Mr. Wilson gives everything to his thick, Russian accent, becoming almost difficult to understand, at times. Steve Malone’s Ariel is an interesting, sometimes humorous rollerblading robot. There are times when the actor is very good, such as in his big number, “Who’s Sorry Now?” But in other moments, the actor’s comic timing and cue pickup is shaky. As Miranda, Prospero’s teenage daughter, Taryn Wood displays a fine voice for this rock-n-roll score, showing off her pipes in “A Teenager in Love,” as well as in several duets. Her Sandy Dombrowski makeover moment, transforming Ms. Wood from cute adolescent to sexy siren, is so extreme that she’s unrecognizable for much of Act II. The ensemble provides a constantly gyrating background of singers and dancers, and Jason Williams’ choreography is period-perfect, reminiscent of those old TV variety shows, like “Hullabaloo” and “The Golddiggers.”
There are, however, a few technical problems with this production. As is often the case at this theatre, some of the body microphones work sporadically, popping on and off mid-sentence. Sometimes they’re attached wrong and create distraction by continually rubbing against costume pieces or other actors. At the top of the show on opening night, one actor’s mic was so distorted that he sounded like he was down a well. Thankfully, someone was eventually able to remedy this problem. Another common difficulty at Jedlicka, and it was true opening night, is that sometimes actors aren’t lit properly. There were many moments opening night when ancillary ensemble members were in the brightest pools of light, while the actors on whom the audience needed to focus were masked in darkness. These technical difficulties simply diminish the power of a good production.
The other problem is directorial and stems from an inconsistent acting style. For a musical parody of the B film genre, particularly the melodramatic science fiction films of the 1950’s, most of the cast seemed far too laid back and natural. Everything in this musical should be as over-the-top as the musical numbers, which are the real highlights of this production (bravo to Jon Steinhagen and his 11 member band). Only Michael Kott and Shana Dagny, and to some extent Jason Williams, have captured this style of acting in their performances. For satire or parody to work, everyone needs to be a part of it. The (unnamed) Crew Member who delivers the pre-show speech and audience participation element has the right attitude; a few of the singing/dancing ensemble consistently display this tongue-in-cheek manner in their supporting roles, too. It just needs to be uniform and consistent.
Dante J. Orfei has masterminded an entertaining musical, paying tribute to those great sci-fi movies of the 50’s and the music of the 60’s and 70’s. The highlight of the evening is the familiar Jukebox score, performed with campy enthusiasm and clothed in Matthew Guthier’s Jetson-inspired costumes upon Michael Nedza’s cool spaceship set. If the technical difficulties can be smoothed out this will go down in history as one of Jedlicka’s most eye-popping productions.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 10-25 by JPAC at the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 708-656-1800 or by going to www.jpactheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.