If you are looking for a perfectly silly and fun piece of summer entertainment, the theatrical equivalent of a great beach read, then you should be heading to Navy Pier to see the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s new musical adaptation of the campy 1950s science fiction film It Came From Outer Space. Creators Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair have pulled out all the stops to recreate the style of the film (which was derived from a story by Ray Bradbury, who gets a clever pay-attention-or-you’ll-miss-it shoutout in the musical) while translating it to this new format.
Kinosian and Blair, with Laura Braza’s inspired direction, have remained true to the “you can see the wires” structure of the special effects (which include some really goofy puppet work), the absurdity of the creature costumes, even the acting styles prominent in the period. (Alex Goodrich is particularly fun as the straight-arrow sheriff with a penchant for whisper-mumbling his key lines, and of course he gets called out on that by other characters.)
Working on Scott Davis’s two-dimensional representation of the Arizona desert—those red mountains are instantly recognizable—Braza and her cast take us back to far more innocent times. Kinosian and Blair have tweaked the plot a little bit, but remain true to the Bradbury notion that aliens need not be—as they were portrayed in so many 50s B-films—antagonistic invaders. Sometimes they are just googly-eyed, tentacled space scientists who are only trying to get back home. Here, even their ability to shift their forms to mimic humans is benign: how else can they go to the hardware store and shop for parts? How else can they locate a mini nuclear reactor to power their broken ship? I mean, come on!
The plot, which obviously plays off the kind of paranoia that leads to the automatic suspicion of newcomers and immigrants (and here includes a representation of a literal “replacement theory”), centers on astronomer John Putnam (Christopher Kale Jones, who is so good in this acting style that he seems to have been born in the wrong decade), a displaced and disgraced scientist from Tuscon—he is constantly reminding the small-town populace of Sand Rock that he’s from “the city”—who has discovered a crashed alien spaceship. Of course, no one believes him, and Goodrich’s Sheriff Warren immediately distrusts him (mostly because Putnam is seriously wooing Jaye Ladymore’s Ellen Fields, a schoolteacher whom Warren has eyes on).
If Ladymore, unlike Jones, is not note-perfect in her reproduction of a 50s B-movie character…that is due to the fact that Kinosian and Blair allow Ellen far more independent thinking than one might expect. Both actors also are excellent singers which, since this is a musical, after all, is very important. Jones, more than Ladymore, recreates the too-polished singing style of the era, but both are strong and enjoyable. The songs, which are fun, though not exactly memorable (with the notable exception of the comic “I Can’t Figure Out Men”), service the plot and format well, beginning with the opening number, “We Are Out There,” which would be very creepy if it were not openly parodic and, at times, downright ridiculous.
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, an actor who is always eminently watchable no matter what kind of part he plays, is on hand in three roles, each campier than the last, and lends his flexible vocals and comedic acting skills throughout the show. In the aforementioned “I Can’t Figure Out Men,” he plays a woman, Coral, who joins with Ellen and a disguised alien named Grommulex (played by Sharriese Y. Hamilton, who—when not in zombie-shuffling alien mode—plays a reporter name Heckie).
Ann Delaney plays Maizie, the kind of woman who sits on her porch and always has homemade peanut brittle on hand, as well as Thalgorian-X, another one of the aliens. (Watching Butler-Duplessis, playing an alien duplicate, lip-synch Thalgorian’s dialogue is a treat all by itself.) In addition to Delany and Hamilton, Goodrich also plays an alien, Prakaxias, and has some delectably comic bits once the visitors have revealed their true forms.
This is a show that, while not a fully fleshed-out musical or romance, is a ton of fun to watch. The writers’ decision to be outrageously campy from the start—for example, they include “put on your 3D glasses” jokes throughout the show, with actors tossing things into the audience—sets the tone and assures the audience that, like a good beach read, this will be entertaining and absorbing before ultimately drifting away with the rest of the summer and fading into a pleasant memory. But that is not a bad thing: not all stage musicals are or need to be Les Miserables, and this one does not aspire to be. Its style is more akin to one of those parody shows based on Die Hard or Love, Actually than a show like Little Shop of Horrors, where the camp is always present but the main characters are portrayed somewhat realistically. It’s a thoroughly reasonable and entertaining choice, but in the end it creates an emotional disconnect that makes it clear that, despite some themes that echo the present moment, this show is just meant to give its audience a good time…a goal at which it succeeds very well.
It Came From Outer Space is playing at the upstairs theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre through July 24.