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Return to the Forbidden Planet

Nine Characters in Search of a Competent Author

By Dan Katz

Staff Writer

Directed by Chris Jones ’01

Starring Noelle Drugan ’01, Katherine Allen ’03, Carl Kraenzel ’87, Tommy Rhyne ’99, Chris Lyon ’02, Brian Wong ’03, Caitlin Marlow ’03, Steve Niemczyk G, and Elicia Anderson ’01

August 31, September 1-2, 7-9

Kresge Little Theater, 8 p.m.

Imagine Steven Spielberg directing Sir Lawrence Olivier and John Malkovich in the title roles of Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie. Despite the tremendous talents of everybody involved, the material would keep them from producing anything worthwhile or entertaining. While I don’t think there’s anybody in the Musical Theater Guild who’s famous for playing Hamlet, their summer show presents a similar predicament. Even the Guild’s best efforts can’t save Bob Carlton’s Return To The Forbidden Planet, quite possibly the worst musical ever written.

The show makes an admirably creative attempt to mix genres, drawing the plot and dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (with plenty of lines parodying other Shakespearean plays), the setting, costumes, and characters from a cheesy science fiction movie (specifically Forbidden Planet, although Star Trek influences are blatant), and songs from 1950s doo-wop and rock and roll. Combining any of two of these might yield an innovative show, but with all three, each tries to dominate the atmosphere, resulting in a near-unwatchable mess.

One of the biggest problems is that lines that are significant to the plot are spoken in the middle of songs, where they are buried by the music and are difficult to understand. Certainly, the dialogue and jokes are corny, but the disorganization of the script launches the play from campy to frustrating.

On a technical level, the production has a few good points. Perhaps the technical highlight of the show is the appearance of the monster in the first act, which is truly a sight to behold. The cleverly designed spaceship set is filled with bells and whistles, including large blinking lights on center stage, periodic sounds from electronic equipment, and a projected image of a newscaster. However, while the lights are cool to look at, after a while they become a distraction from a show that’s already hard to follow. Furthermore, the news briefs are badly timed and seem completely out of place.

Throughout the show, the songs are executed perfectly; the Shakespeare is not. Often with musicals, the emphasis of rehearsals goes to the songs, and here it shows, with some great musical numbers (accompanied by a great band) at the expense of lines. The dialogue is often delivered without feeling and enunciation, conveying little to the audience. This is once again a result of overloading the play with ideas; the actors seem unsure of whether they’re supposed to be concentrating on Shakespearean acting or corny sci-fi stereotypes. Apparently they’re supposed to be focusing on both equally, which simply doesn’t work.

While the lead characters, including Tommy Rhyne, Noelle Drugan, and Kat Allen (whose singing voice may be the strongest in the show) are well-rounded and enjoyable, the real highlights come from the supporting cast. Carl Kraenzel plays Dr. Prospero with such intensity that he almost (but not quite) seems out of place. Steve Niemczyk and Chris Lyon both combine excellent comic timing with consistently strong solo vocals. Caitlin Marlow captures the ditsy navigation officer wonderfully, making every facial expression count, and Brian Wong’s mechanized portrayal of the robotic Ariel is hilarious. These performers make the songs work, and Kraenzel leads them all in a final musical number that is undoubtedly the best part of the show, though it seems completely unrelated to the plot.

In many performances, it’s easy to zero in on a person on stage that’s causing the show to fail. In this case, that person is not an actor or a stagehand; it’s the author. There are a number of great performances in Return To The Forbidden Planet and an equal effort from behind the scenes; it’s a shame they’re paddling against such an insurmountable current.