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Chicago by John Olson

Zombies From the Beyond
BackStage Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2

Also see John's review of High School Musical

Zombies From the Beyond
Eva Swan
Before The Producers and The Drowsy Chaperone and other self-referential musical parodies became so common in the musical theater, there was this 1995 Off-Broadway musical. It satirizes not only musicals, but the low-budget sci-fi films of the fifties and mid-century pop culture in general. Easy targets to be sure, but when satirized as affectionately as they are in this show, it comes off as nostalgic rather than mean. Who couldn't look fondly on a time when our greatest enemies were imaginary aliens? Of course, at the heart of the paranoia was the knowledge that men now had the nuclear technology that could end all life on the planet. There's mention of that in Zombies as well, a reference to nuclear fallout shelters, but mostly the characters in this show are concerned about the dangers of otherworldly humanoid creatures.

Music, book and lyrics for the piece are by James Valcq (who later wrote The Spitfire Grill with Fred Alley). He set the musical in his native Milwaukee in 1955, as mid-American a place as 1995 was a mid-century year. It allows him to set a climactic battle atop the art deco Wisconsin Gas Company building, alongside its landmark "weather flame," a giant beacon in the shape of a gas flame that provides nightly weather forecasts by changing colors (red means warmer weather tomorrow, and so on).

Valcq's score includes the title song that closes act one an ensemble number that amazingly translates the look and feel of Night of the Living Dead into musical comedy. Much of the score pastiches '50s pop music. There are flirtatious charm songs (one or two too many of them) in the style of Perry Como and a woman's lament la Patti Page. Through the lens of these varying cultural references, the piece manages to spoof not just cheap sci-fi movies, but the era that spawned them as well.

Director Megan E. Frei knows exactly how hard to press the easy satire, and her performers maintain a wacky, cartoonish demeanor that gently mocks the bad acting of 1950s B-movies. There aren't a whole lot of unexpected moments from the cast, but they maintain a goofy tone that keeps the proceedings fun. As in the films this show teases, the men are mostly cardboard figures. The stiffest is Major Malone (Steve Hickson), head of the fictitious Milwaukee Space Center. Malone's über-serious assistant Rick Jones is in fact a Soviet spy (played with mock-seriousness by the lanky Ken Barnard). The handsome-under-his-Clark-Kent-glasses scientist newly assigned to the Space Center. Trenton Corbett (Boyd Harris), becomes the love interest for the Major's daughter. The worst shortcoming of the production is that these three men all seem to be singing in a tonal scale from another planet. What's worse than off-key singing? Powerful off-key singing. The men's strong volume spoils the choral numbers as well as their solos.

The female characters are a lot more fun (and, thankfully, on-key), beginning with Major Malone's daughter Mary, played by Elizabeth Hope Morgan. Her comic timing and sold vocals make her the standout in this cast. Lead alien Zombina is a dazed, "zombified" hoot whose super-power a coloratura Soprano begins to turn the men of Milwaukee into her slaves. As Zombina, Eva Swan's parody of sci-fi zombies is spot on, and she has the singing voice the character requires, though her diction makes the lyrics hard to understand. Rebekah Ward-Hays is Charlene, a sexy secretary to whom all the stick-figure men of the Space Center are oblivious. She delivers a lot of laughs and handles her vocals ably. Charlene's charms are appreciated only by deli delivery boy Billy Krutzik, sweetly clad in an all-white uniform that is still in use in Milwaukee (at the Kopp's Frozen Custard stores). As Billy, Matthew Gottlieb has a wholesome charm, is a better singer than the other men in the cast, and gets to do a tap number, "Atomic Feet," that's a highlight of the show.

The production team has done a marvelous job of creating visuals that are true to the cheesy style and budgets of the B-movies. As a native of the beer city myself, I can vouch for the accuracy of the Milwaukee settings. Heath Hays' scenic design includes a cutout of Milwaukee's skyline showing the City Hall made famous by Laverne and Shirley as well as other landmarks not so well known to the general public. Brian A. Kafel's props include an accurate rendering of the masthead of the now defunct morning newspaper, the Milwaukee Sentinel. Of course he gives us a flying saucer that is actually some sort of metal serving dish flown on deliberately visible wires, but he also comes up with a ray gun that in a previous life was a vacuum cleaner. Joshua Allard's costumes include colorful and fanciful outfits for the alien zombies and authentic-enough fifties fashions and uniforms. Matt Kooi creates some nice effects within the resources of the tiny space in the Athenaeum Studio 2.

This production of Zombies and its cast are more of the world of improv than musical theater, so with that caveat to set expectations, fans of either genre should have a great time at this cleverly designed piece and not find the proceedings too alien for their tastes.

Zombies From the Beyond will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through September 1, 2007. There will be additional Thursday performances on August 23rd and 30th at 8:00pm. Performances are at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. For ticket reservations and more information on Zombies From the Beyond, call 312-683-5347 or visit www.backstagetheatrecompany.org.


Photo: Johnny Knight Photo

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-- John Olson



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