REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Before Mamma Mia!, before The Marvelous Wonderettes, and before Jersey Boys, there was Return to the Forbidden Planet, an Off-Broadway space farce that was one of the first musicals to incorporate pop hits into its score. A spoof of the 1956 cult sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, Bob Carlton’s musical utilizes the language and general storyline of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in relating the adventures of an interstellar space ship, which is drawn to a mysterious planet by a mad scientist and his beauteous daughter. The show is being staged at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura in a colorful, lively production directed and choreographed by Kirby Ward.
Ward went all out in this production, unleashing scenic and lighting designer Thomas S. Giamario to design a stunning set depicting the interior of a spaceship, and Pamela Shaw, who created the wonderful costumes. Ward also utilized the talents of veteran comedian Fred Willard to play the straight-faced narrator (his image projected on a screen above the stage) who introduces the story in iambic pentameter. Straight-arrow type Captain Tempest (Harley Jay) combines the macho-heroic persona of William Shatner with a Ben Stiller-inspired earnestness. The musical employs ample references to Star Trek, including the familiar Federation salute and several characters based on key crew members of the Enterprise; Bosun, the ship’s first mate and lead guitarist (Craig McEldowney), speaks with the Scottish brogue of Star Trek’s Scotty, and its ever-logical, Prince Valiant-coiffed, pointy-eared navigation officer (Martin Landry), who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Spock, while doubling as the on-stage keyboardist (“Two beats or not two beats,” he tells the band.)
Bob Carlton’s tongue-in-cheek book is rife with Shakespearean puns such as this, utilizing familiar lines from plays ranging from Julius Caesar to Romeo and Juliet. Kirby Shaw’s choreography is limited to the standing-in-one-place moves of ’60s go-go dancers, a technique that works beautifully given the limited space the cast has to work with on the cramped stage. The set is pure eye candy, including a tubular transporter that characters use instead of simply walking off stage, and an iris-like airlock hatch, through which crew members pass as they venture to D’Illyria’s surface. The crew even encounters a D’Illyrian space monster, whose octopus-like tentacles protrude through the opening.
Jason Graae, who was Houdini in the original Broadway production of Ragtime (but, alas, is better known as the voice of the Lucky Charms leprechaun) plays Ariel, an android who combines the speech and mannerisms of Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Robin Williams’ Mork in a character patterned after Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot. Graae is terrific as he utilizes the jerky mime movements every actor learns but rarely gets to put into practice in an actual show, rolling around on Heelys as he sings the Connie Francis classic “Who’s Sorry Now?”
The Rubicon’s artistic director emeritus James O’Neil could not resist getting in on the fun and plays the key role of Dr. Prospero, who has been marooned on the planet D’Illyria, after he and his daughter Miranda were dispatched there by Prospero’s wife Gloria (Rebecca Ann Johnson), who happens to be the science officer on Captain Tempest’s ship. O’Neil plays Prospero with weighty Shakespearean drama, while the flame-haired Johnson provides oomph when singing Van Morrison’s 1965 hit “Gloria.”
Kimberley Hessler is ravishing as Miranda but knows how to play deadpan comedy, while Caleb Horst adds some romantic conflict as the ship’s cook, Cookie, who instantly falls for her after she arrives on board and leads the cast in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
Best of all is the ingenious use of the pop and rock songs from the ’50s and ’60s, set up by the characters and the dialog so that they not only make sense in the story, but actually integrate themselves into explaining the characters’ personalities and motivations, in the true Oklahoma! tradition. Songs such as the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the Union Gap’s “Young Girl,” and the Moody Blues’ “Go Now” are among the more than 20 songs filtered into the score, performed live by costumed “crew members,” led by Trevor Wheetman. The variety of songs used brings to mind Roger Bean, the pop chart-savvy creator of The Marvelous Wonderettes, who introduced eclectic songs that weren’t necessarily chart-toppers, but were used to help advance the plot. Songs such as the Byrds’ country-flavored “Mister Spaceman” (sung by Hessler) and the Exciters’ “Tell Him” (changed to “Tell Her” for this production) were unexpected delights. The only number that really didn’t have anything to do with the plot was Bobby Pickett’s Halloween classic “Monster Mash,” which is thrown in as a lark after the storyline is basically wrapped up.
Return to the Forbidden Planet is a cult classic that deserves to be seen more often and the Rubicon’s lively, highly energetic production is, as one might say in the vernacular of the era: “far out!” Beam down to the Rubicon before it warps out of orbit.
Return to the Forbidden Planet plays through November 13 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.