Almost 70 years before last week’s landing of the world premiere musical “It Came From Outer Space” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the groundbreaking 1953 Universal International movie of the same name had audiences screaming and cringing from behind their 3-D glasses as meteorites, space debris and aliens seemingly hurtled directly at them.
You don’t need much familiarity with Universal’s first 3-D movie or its special effects to appreciate the 85-minute musical commissioned by Chicago Shakes from Joe Kinosian (music and lyrics) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics). Inspired by that cult classic film (which was based on a story by Ray Bradbury, who also wrote an early version of the screenplay), “It Came From Outer Space” the musical is sheer silliness.
When: Through July 24
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theaeter, 800 E. Grand Avenue, on Navy Pier
Tickets: $50 – $60
Run-time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Both an homage and parody of the movie, the musical follows an alien invasion in the Area 51-ish desert town of Sand Rock. It falls to outsider John Putnam (Christopher Kale Jones) and local schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Jaye Ladymore) to save the townsfolk from their own ignorance and the predators from afar.
Directed by Laura Braza, the production looks and sounds great. There are no 3-D glasses, but the opening scene (among others) offers planetarium-grade astral effects that’ll have you ooh-ing, aah-ing and perhaps even ducking as stars and flying saucers blast off from the stage. That’s thanks to star turns by lighting designer Heather Sparling and video/projection designers Rasean Davonte Johnson and Michael Salvatore Commendatore.
But all the meticulously outsized, whiz-bang lights and projections can’t erase the fact that there are never any real stakes in “It Came From Outer Space.” In amping up the inherent campiness of a movie where you can literally see the wires keeping the UFOs aloft, Kinosian and Kellen have created the musical version of cotton candy: initially delightful, ultimately forgettable.
That problem is highlighted in the final scenes, when Kinosian and Kellen turn the comedy down in order to deliver a simplistic, dumbed-down moral about finding common ground with your enemies, even if all you can agree on is the weather. Bradbury’s original has a similar message, but it carries more depth and nuance on the page than it does on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater stage.
Director Braza’s vocally, comedically gifted ensemble makes the most of things. Played by a four-person live band conducted by Kevin Reeks and perched above the stage, the innocuously pleasant score soars as John and Ellen fight aliens and fall in love. As in the movie, it doesn’t take long before aliens are inhabiting the bodies of the local earthlings.
To be clear: These are not aliens who explode from someone’s gut like a burst grapefruit or who blow entire cities to bits. Except for that astronomical lighting/projection design, the special effects here are decidedly, unapologetically low-tech. But for Ladymore and Jones, the cast is double- and triple-cast as townspeople and aliens. We know when they’re aliens because they shamble like zombies and talk like they’ve used Google Translate to learn English. When not inhabiting humans, the aliens manifest as tentacled shadow puppets. (The gifted artists of Chicago’s Manuel Cinema consulted on the whimsical puppetry).
Throughout, choreographer Dell Howlett uses the dance vocabulary of the movie’s Golden Age of Hollywood era, subverting the moves every so often. John and Ellen’s “Brand New Start” romantic duo, for example, evokes classic Fred and Ginger, except Fred is no longer leading by the final pose.
Kinosian’s score is rich in musical soliloquizing, not so rich in memorable music. It sounds as good as it does thanks to the cast’s collective pipes and that crackerjack live band. In the trio “I Can’t Figure Out Men,” Ladymore, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (In drag as Coral, a hausfrau with an impressive bouffant) and Ann Delaney (as the alien Thalgorian-X) soft-shoe away their frustrations about trying to understand the titular gender. Ladymore belts to the spheres with “Your Place,” wherein she questions why she’s suddenly devoting her life to being the supportive girlfriend to some astronomer she just met. And in “Science Only Knows,” Jones goes all-in with both the belt and the emoting as he praises his own intellectual superiority.
The cast’s prowess aside, “It Came From Outer Space” feels more like a series of really good comic sketches than a solid, cohesive whole.
The movie wasn’t necessarily camp back in 1953, but it is now. And Kinosian and Kellen haven’t figured out a way to honor the camp without allowing its ridiculousness to overtake any kind of story its audiences can actually invest in. If they can find that balance, “It Came From Outer Space” could be out of this world.