BWW Reviews: Jobsite's RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET at the Jaeb
It's one of the finest local ensemble audiences have seen in years. The set is up there with the best the Jaeb Theatre has ever housed. The songs are Fifties and Sixties classics sung to absolute perfection, backed by an incredible live band and led by music director Jana Jones (complete with Princess Leia braids). The show's plot is a twisted take on one of Shakespeare's best-loved plays, THE TEMPEST, as well as its science fiction offspring, the 1956 Leslie Nielson cinematic classic, FORBIDDEN PLANET. And David Jenkins' wonderfully directed performances are as good as it gets. Put all these elements together in RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET, and Jobsite Theatre has a galactic winner on its hands, right?
Um, not so fast.
If you have ever eaten KFC's Famous Bowls that combine creamy mashed potatoes, chicken, gravy, and a shredded three-cheese blend, then you will understand that what may taste good separately does not always work when thrown together in a messy heap. That's the case with this show. I am a fan of THE TEMPEST, the overtly Freudian FORBIDDEN PLANET, and many of the songs featured in the score. But together they don't add up.
If a spaceship blasting off to the rockin' sounds of iconic surf music ("Wipe Out") seems like something that's right down your asteroid belt, then by all means, see the show and enjoy it. If you want to hear some incredible vocals on Sixties standards like "Who's Sorry Now?" and "Good Vibrations," then this is the place. If that's all you want for your ticket price, then you will have a better time than I, where I found the melding of styles arbitrary at best and only sporadically clever. RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET is too groaningly obvious for intellectuals and too glaringly obtuse for the "simple folk" (as Lerner & Loewe called them). Everyone else is caught in the middle, not knowing what to do with this high energy gumbo of Shakespeare, science fiction and oldies but goodies pop hits.
It's an interesting problem to have--when a production of a show is first rate and yet somehow does not connect. Usually it's the other way around, when bad or amateurish productions of masterpieces abound. Even then, sometimes the greatness of the play will emerge somewhere in the slop. Or at least there is one standout performance that gives us an inkling of how grand the show should be, the missed opportunity that breaks our hearts. (I've seen examples of this recently with a production of GYPSY that had a particularly strong Tessie Tura and Tulsa, but was otherwise a casualty-strewn train wreck, and a version of CAMELOT that didn't have a lot to offer, not even a set, but at least featured a Guinevere with an exquisite singing voice.)
But what do you do when the opposite happens, when everyone onstage is stellar, and the set itself looks stellar, but the forced camp of the script grounds the entire enterprise? In its desperation at aiming for cult status, the show reminds me of the sequel to the movie version of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, SHOCK TREATMENT, that tried to re-create the ROCKEY HORROR phenomenon but pushed too hard and lost what made the original so much fun. (It should be noted that Richard O'Brien, ROCKEY HORROR and SHOCK TREATMENT creator, appeared in a 2012 production of RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET as the narrator.)
Still, RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET is beloved by many and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical for 1989, actually beating out the more famous MISS SAIGON, but that doesn't mean it works today. In 1989, the jukebox musical was a rather new entity, cutting edge, and the quirky British--who also picked JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA as Best New Musical of 2004 (beating out RAGTIME and THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE)--chose this as the toppermost of the poppermost. Today it seems forced and pat, and the quirkiness is just quirk for quirks sake. Don't get me wrong, this is as good a version as you're likely to see of this musical, but if the show is no better than a lame mash-up game of Trivial Pursuit with "Shakespeare," "1950's Sci-Fi" and "Classic Pop & Rock Hits" as the only categories, then what does it matter?
This is not a fault in our stars with RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET; it's a fault in Bob Carlton's cutesy-cool concept, not in this particular production of it.
The acting and singing by the Jobsite cast are above reproach. Standout performances include Vodkanauts front man Jonathan Harrison as Captain Tempest, a leader in the James T. Kirk mold; J. Elijah Cho as an incredibly likable Bosun Arras; Heather Krueger in the role of Science Officer/Gloria ("G-L-O-R-I-A!"), whose vocal chops are second to none (her version of "Gloria" induces goose bumps); Owen Robertson as Prospero, whose rich voice shakes the walls, throttling rock classics like "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (it's like having Ezio Pinza plow his way through the Animals' greatest hits); and last but not least, Jaime Giangrande-Holcolm as a scene-stealing robot on roller skates, Ariel, who looks like the spawn of Robby the Robot and V.I.N.C.E.N.T. from Disney's THE BLACK HOLE (excellent make-up). This cast and their groovy space-age band (Woody Bond, Jana Jones, Mark Warren, and Parker Wilkson) sure know how to rock the house.
The tech is also outstanding, with Mike Wood's lighting spot-on as usual and Katrina Stevenson's STAR TREK inspired costumes appropriate. The atomic age décor of the spaceship comes complete with a Big Brother video screen (with local news anchor Brendan McLaughlin giving us various updates throughout). Kudos to Brian Smallheer for a beautifully constructed set and for the monster that ends Act 1 when its tentacles break through the spacecraft doors.
I just wish the show proved worthy of all of this greatness.
Go to RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET and see if you agree with me--a top-notched production of a non-show. Experiencing it is like eating nothing but the most delicious icing in the world; it's so much of a good thing, but...where's the cake?