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The First (and Last) Musical on Mars

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If Ed Wood had written and directed a stage musical, it probably would have ended up a lot like The First (and Last) Musical on Mars, which is playing through October 2 at the Mint Space. The show so thoroughly evokes the hokiness - almost entirely unintentional - of Wood's work (including Plan 9 From Outer Space) that it seems a fitting tribute for the 80th anniversary of the legendary low-budget filmmaker's birth.

Looked at in just about any other way, this show is sorely lacking. Written and directed by George Zarr, who worked at the Sci-Fi Channel and thus really should know better, this is ostensibly a musical comedy, though one with unmemorable songs, very few laughs, and only the barest semblance of professionalism in any of its elements.

The story, such as it is, centers on a man named James (Paul Amodeo), who's yanked form his Ohio home and brought before the ruling family of Jupiter to write a musical for the coronation of two Jovian princesses, Loo-Koo (Christina D'orta) and Poo-Koo (Alissa Hunnicutt). This means that the current rulers - King Rah-Tah-Poo (John Barrilla) and Queen Zaba-Thoo (Barbara Rosenblatt), the princesses' uncle and aunt - will lose their power, so the two conceive a plan to prevent the princesses from surviving the coronation. (Why does all this take place on Mars when everyone involved is from Jupiter? "The rents are cheaper," explains the script. Ha ha.)

The story's details are mostly inconsequential, but you can probably guess them: The survival of Earth hangs in the balance? Check. James falls in love with one of the princesses? Check. James enlists a four-headed Martian to help write the musical? Check. One of the members of the galactic court is stagestruck and demands to be in the show? Check. The King isn't what he appears to be? Check. There's an action-packed, race-against-the-clock climax involving a beam gun and an Earth woman's compact? Except for the "action-packed" part, check.

What about half-hearted scenic design? That's here, too, courtesy of Peter Feuchtwanger, who places a few chairs and drapes a few skeins of fabric about the stage to suggest outer-space opulence. There are even the obligatory ridiculous costumes, designed by Tracy Calhoun, though they suggest just a hint of color and cleverness otherwise missing in the show. (Edith Blackman designed the decent but unremarkable lights and Jack Anthony the surprisingly effective sound.)

Both Ronnie Britton (the show's choreographer) and Barbara Anselmi (the musical director) deserve special mention for their hard work in attempting to make the score seem musical and interesting in performance. Their battle, though, is an uphill one; Zarr only occasionally conjures up a worthwhile melody, and usually in a throwaway song - "Retro-Rocked Warp Speed," about the princesses' tendencies toward hasty spaceflight is perhaps the best example. Zarr's work on other numbers often seems influenced by '50s and '60s song stylings and is the kind of thing you might find in a high-school or college show: An extraneous dance spot ("The Shellfish") and an embarrassing attempt at an audience-sing-along in "The Mnemonic Planetary Rag" highlight his less distinguished contributions.

None of this gives the cast much to work with, though D'orta stands out with her appealing innocent manner and a strong, supple singing voice that proves equally beautiful when she belts or sings in a more legit manner. Amodeo can carry a tune as James, but can't make him interesting or funny; Barrilla doesn't bring much color to his villain role; Gary Kiffel is underpowered vocally and comedically as the show-biz-addicted Commodore Krakoff; and though Hunnicutt and Rosenblat have their moments, they don't have enough of them.

Also of special note is ensemble member Michelle Solomon, who nets the show's finest comic moment with her performance as something called a Cryptis Pet. Though Solomon does little more than stand over D'orta for several minutes and pelt her with a tiny grey stuffed animal, she makes a major impression: This scene is one of such sublime, understated silliness that it almost gives The First (and Last) Musical on Mars its own legitimate coup de théâtre.

Sadly, it contributes nothing appreciable to the story or the characters, and so just as easily could be - and probably should be - excised. Still, it's a brief taste of truly delicious, unbridled enjoyment in an otherwise labored and very dull work, and chances are that instituting it - and leaving it in - is exactly the kind of thing Ed Wood himself would have done.

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The First (and Last) Musical on Mars
Through October 2
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission
Mint Space, 311 West 43rd Street, 5th floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212.645.6910