Though it won the 1989 Olivier Award for Best Musical, it's a jukebox musical, incorporating rock 'n' roll hits like 'All Shook Up" and 'Great Balls of Fire." These oldies-but-goodies are thrown in with madcap abandon and often with telling effect. For instance, when the innocent young Miranda (Katie Nigsch) flips for the spaceship's Captain Tempest (Justin Wilcox), she wails, 'Why must I be a teenager in love?" The adolescent ballad is simultaneously appropriate and hilarious " all the more so, given the extra syllables Nigsch slips into 'lo-o-o-ve."
Director Claire Van Cott hits the audience with some atmospheric hocus-pocus before the show. Viewers are cast in the part of intergalactic travelers aboard spacecraft 9. There is a flight manual with safety information as well as little bags of peanuts and pretzels. Participation gimmicks get glancing attention from time to time " like the instructions for the Polarity Reversal Drill, a brief game of Simon Says where the audience mimics the motions of the actors.
In theory, the play parallels The Tempest, and it's worth noting that England's Elizabethan period was a time of astounding discoveries at the far corners of the world " not the least of which was the continent we inhabit. The idea of unknown, magical islands was in the air. Shakespeare's presence in this sci-fi world isn't limited to The Tempest. He is quoted often and somewhat haphazardly, making for a peculiar unreality. Why do the glitzy space cadets 'thee" and 'thou" each other? Why do they use 'attend me" for 'listen to me"? It's pure and simple fun, and the top-notch cast gets many laughs from this jumble of nonsense. When there are radar beeps, for instance, the Tempest ponders: 'Two beeps or not two beeps? That is the question."
In The Tempest, Prospero is a sorcerer marooned on an island with his daughter Miranda. He has two magical helpers, Ariel and Caliban. Ariel, as the name suggests, is a feather-light spirit of the air. On spaceship 9, Ariel (Jeffrey Springmann) is a huge robot who has trouble fitting through the doorways. (A tip of the hat goes to Joshua Tiska for construction of this robotic man.) If the Ariel figure is surprisingly massive, the character that I took to be the stand-in for Caliban " a crude, morose slave in Shakespeare " is the slim and slight crew member Cookie (Joseph Van Zandt), who suffers a deep unrequited love for Miranda.
Spaceship 9's Science Officer (Meredith Long) throws herself joyfully into song numbers and moves well. At one point, she deserts the ship. We see her riding off in a folded-paper airplane. This projection is one of many (thanks to Andy Elliot), including shots of JPAS honcho Dennis Assaf as a newscaster whose mouth seems disconnected from the rest of his face.
At the end of Act I, the Science Officer returns by way of an airlock in the floor, but she is attacked by a crablike alien who tries to drag her back out by her feet. Meanwhile, Dr. Prospero (Richard Hutton) identifies the Science Officer as none other than his treacherous wife Gloria, who tied him up and launched him into space. Dr. Prospero and his daughter have been marooned ever since on a forsaken planet. He's been working on various arcane projects like telegenesis (creating matter by thought alone) and the formula for some sort of mind-altering drug. Needless to say, he wants revenge on his wife and to escape exile. He also generated the ray that pulled the spacecraft toward his planet.
The trick here is to keep things light. The lightness is more Marx Brothers than camp, and the music helps maintain the levity. The singing is excellent throughout. At times, cast members played instruments: a sax, a keyboard, drums. But Don Hopkinson Jr. directed the JPAS Broadway Pit Orchestra for most of the accompaniment. Return to the Forbidden Planet was refreshing nonsense.