Lost in Space

This sci-fi musical is a trip to nowhere

The Actors Playhouse has a serious personality conflict. The Coral Gables company is known as a purveyor of cheerful lightweight entertainment that's rather like the upscale chain restaurants that are sprouting near its Miracle Mile location: The fare is uncomplicated and consistent, no challenges and no surprises. AP has had considerable success with this strategy, but when it strays toward more difficult fare, the result tends toward box-office disaster, with complaints and walkouts from regular patrons, as was the case with last season's Comic Potential and Floyd Collins. Yet AP also craves the artistic recognition that such shows bring: Of the 26 Carbonell nominations the theater pulled down this year, over half came from those two shows.

What to do? The theater apparently still feels the sting of controversy and has decided to play to its perceived strengths by packing its new season with commercial, low-risk shows, beginning with the season-opening musical Return to the Forbidden Planet. Like many AP shows, Planet offers baby-boomer music with a bland pop-culture context: Four Guys Named Jose played a generic Latin angle. Smokey Joe's Café did the same thing for R&B. Little Shop of Horrors referenced monster movies. Planet has a similar take on science fiction, and the theater used space-age language in its advance publicity: "October 1st blast off -- limited four week engagement -- It won't return for 60,000 years!" Hopefully, the theater is true to its word. The show is notable for its skilled production elements, but its script is so profoundly stupid, it makes Four Guys look like Lorca.

Like Little Shop of Horrors, Planetis a stage adaptation of a B movie from the 1960s, Forbidden Planet, that was itself based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. To this, British author Bob Carlton has added a string of late 1950s and '60s rock 'n' roll tunes, like "She's Not There," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and "Only the Lonely." Then, to gild this strange lily, Carlton uses a grab bag of Shakespearean quotes as the spoken dialogue.

Doesn't look like the Bard's work.
Doesn't look like the Bard's work.

The story line, such as it is, is straight-forward enough. A spacecraft commanded by one Capt. Tempest finds itself under the strange gravitational pull of a mysterious planet. Tempest and crew discover that this is the work of the planet's ruler, Dr. Prospero, who seeks revenge on his nemesis, his wife, Gloria, who is aboard the craft in disguise. But as Tempest sorts out what's going on, he falls for Prospero's blond bombshell of a daughter, Miranda, who has also caught the eye of Cookie, the ship's cook, who plots to gain her for himself. Author Bob Carlton presents most of this sci-fi spoof in the form of Shakespearean quotes, apparently in the mistaken belief that this is inherently funny. Instead, it's a one joke idea that plays and replays endlessly.

In addition to The Tempest, the script borrows from Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and an array of other Shakespeare plays. When Cookie plots against Capt. Tempest, he rips through Edmund's soliloquy from King Lear. When Prospero faints and falls to the floor, we get a snatch of the epilepsy scene from Othello. Though diehard Shakespeare fans may get a minor kick out of identifying the endless flurry of quotes, it's hard to imagine what regular Actors Playhouse audiences, which recoiled from Comic Potential, will make of all this.

This conceptual mess is partially rescued by director David Arisco's top-flight production team and a talented performing ensemble that knocks out the golden-oldie tunes with flair. As the battling spouses, Prospero and Gloria, Jonathan Laverentz and Stacey Schwartz bring a high camp operatic style and strong singing voices that really click with the material. Christopher A. Kent, as Capt. Tempest, and Francisco Padura, as Cookie, burn up the stage in the guitar-heavy rock numbers. The large cast, which includes AP regulars Terry M. Cain and Barry Tarallo, delivers solid support.

Arisco stages the proceedings as part musical/part rock concert in the style of The Rocky Horror Show which, along with Little Shop, Carlton is clearly striving to emulate. The large cast is on the two-tiered stage for most of the evening, as in a rock concert, and the dramatic action -- such as it is -- takes place down center. Arisco, who has always had a fondness for complex staging challenges, pulls out all the stops with this production, which includes a huge tentacled monster à la Little Shop and some nicely produced video sequences.

Perhaps the most inspired touch is casting the Miami Space Transit Planetarium's executive director, Jack Horkheimer, as the Star Gazer, who provides wry on-screen narration in iambic pentameter. Solid production support comes from Gene Seyffert's huge high-tech spaceship set and Mary Lynne Izzo's Star Trek-like costumes, though neither of these designers seems particularly inspired. Little wonder.

 
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