The Brain From Planet X
Not everyone would consider it a success to make a musical Ed Wood would be proud of, but Bruce Kimmel probably would. Kimmel, director, composer, lyricist, and co-librettist (with David Wechter) of The Brain From Planet X, playing at the Acorn Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, has put so much pulp into his alien-invasion musical that King of the Z Movies Wood couldn’t help but adore it.
The atmosphere he’s created here, of toy weapons, aluminum pie plates masquerading as flying saucers, and a stuffed-shirt narrator, is straight out of Wood’s minimum opus, Plan Nine From Outer Space. Theatrically, his work is something of a cross between the best of Ahrens & Flaherty and Mel Brooks, juggling earnest sentiment with an anything-for-a-gag mentality that fit together more seamlessly than you might suspect. As Kimmel’s career has encompassed performing, writing, and record producing, his knack for melodies that stick in your ear as if with Super Glue was to be expected. (The title tune, repeated some five times, is the best kind of maddening.)
Yet Kimmel’s lyrics don’t capture the right spoof-o-rama feel, settling for obvious chuckles instead of the more subversive humor of the book and music. The story, about a race of super-intelligent aliens (led, naturally, by a giant brain) attempting to conquer the world from the San Fernando outward, allows Kimmel countless opportunities for mocking the year (1958), its reliance on social and gender stereotyping, and of course the future, and he makes the most of all of them. But this leaves very little for the songs to do, so they’re at their best when just entertaining, especially with the second-act opener “The Brain Tap,” which deftly combines cranium-piercing science with silence-piercing hoofing, rather than exploring characters and plot points we already know intimately.
Not that a stageful of perfectly cast performers don’t add a great deal to the fun: Amy Bodnar and Rob Evan are delectable as Joyce and Fred Bunson, the waxwork-happy husband and wife at the center of the tale; Merrill Grant and Paul Downs Colaizzo are full of youthful verve as sex-starved Bunson daughter Donna and her reluctant boyfriend Rod; and Richard Pruitt brings a hilarious blustery self-importance to “the world’s oldest living one-star general,” General Mills, in charge of staving off the attack. Cason Murphy and Alet Taylor, play to the hilt their roles of high-ranking (and secretly libidinous) aliens.
Barry Pearl is a joy as the wise-cracking Brain, bringing a Catskill-comic sensibility (and some 46 years of theatre experience) to a role that requires nothing less to survive an evening inside a headpiece shaped like an uncooked meatball. (The evocative costumes are by Jessa-Raye Court.) He quips, taps, and mugs his way through his schemes with skill and assurance that wave away any hint of incongruity at their faintest suggestion. That’s no small talent in a show based on a film genre with that as its very lifeblood. If The Brain From Planet X is just as inconsistent when it sings, the Kimmel-Pearl one-two punch more than holds it all together.
Venue: The Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street 3rd floor.
First things first: Love Sucks doesn't. This punk adaptation of William Shakespeare's sophisticated comedy Love's Labour's Lost by Stephen O'Rourke (book and lyrics) and Brandon Patton (music and lyrics) is a surprisingly savvy one.
It transports the original's story about men forswearing the pleasures of the flesh into 1970s Greenwich Village, where the central quartet is band named The Molotovs quietly rocking its way up the club scene. To help bolster their careers, the manager and lead singer Big Joe convinces the others to give up long-term relationships and break up with any woman they sleep with three times. They don't, however, count on meeting the four-girl band The Guttersnipes, led by the driven but venomous Patti, who are as spunky and talented as they are beautiful, and who test the Molotovs' resolve while challenging them all the way to the top of the music business.
You know the drill: The underlings fall (in love, that is) then conspire to drag their leaders down with them, so they can all keep making the music they love. The only surprise in Love Sucks, which has been provided with solid direction by Andy Goldberg and energetic choreography by Tricia Brouk, is how good the songs are: Juxtaposing throat-stretching wailing with more subdued power ballads and, in an amusing late-show turnaround, girl-folk and guy-group crooning, conveys the gangs' full emotional and musical spectra. The songs are very loud, and the rhymes (as is perhaps to be expected) are often approximate at best, but the blending of diegetic and character numbers is so skillful that not only will you not always be able to tell where one ends and the other begins, you're also unlikely to care.
The cast, led by Nicholas Webber as Big Joe and Rebecca Hart as Patti, is winning: The members of both The Molotovs (Andrew M. Ross, Jason Wooten, and a very funny Rob Marnell as the perennially broke one) and The Guttersnipes (Caryn Havlik, Heather Robb, and Athena Reich) have powerful rock voices and adeptly accompanying themselves and their castmates on guitars, keyboards, and drums. Kim Gatewood and Debargo Sanyal score in their perfectly pitched multi-use ensemble performances.
Love Sucks still needs work: It's hampered, sometimes severely, by the repetitiveness arising from having both bands play sequentially and, worse, following the same no-S.O. deal. For example: "Lovesick," for the Molotovs to covertly convince Patti of Big Joe's feelings, is a riot; "Patti Likes Guys," in which the girls work their magic on Big Joe in the following scene, just feels like a retread.) And the ending is perhaps too fitting a tribute to Shakespeare's classically inconclusive one, dissolving into dramatic nothingness just when it should most explosively take off. Only these issues keep the highly entertaining Love Sucks from reaching its full, explosive potential.
Venue: Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street between 9th and 10th avenues