Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review – The Brain From Planet X (Kritzerland, Inc. and the New York Musical Theatre Festival)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

Science fiction films from the ’50s and ’60s have provided marvelous fodder for parodists. Their bright-eyed optimism, cheesy special effects and unabashed anticommunist messages seem to be especially fertile ground – witness such shows as Little Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Zombie Prom, and Reefer Madness (okay, not technically sci fi based, but it has the right vibe). Also consider Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show created to mock these over-earnest, over-acted films.

For The Brain From Planet X, writers Bruce Kimmel and David Wechter have created a show that is, at its best, a kitschy send-up of those sci fi groaners. Unfortunately, due primarily to a weak book, static direction by Kimmel, some lame borscht belt one-liners and sight gags, and a rather uncomfortable audience participation segment, the show never really lives up to its full potential.

The Brain From Planet X, predictably, deals with an invasion from outer space. It’s 1958 and aliens have set their sights on the San Fernando Valley. They won’t stop until all mankind is enslaved. The Brain (Barry Pearl), with sidekicks Yoni (Alet Taylor) and Zubrick (Cason Murphy) in tow, has the ultimate weapon, a Mind-Bending Ray, that saps the will from anyone who gets zapped by it. Only the Bunson family - good, upstanding, God-fearing Americans - stand in their way. Can the Bunsons stop the invasion and save mankind? Probably. But it’s the how and when that make it fun.

The show is certainly not without its charms. Foremost among these are Bruce Kimmel’s delightful songs. The opening number “The Brain from Planet X” gets the show off to a rousing start, aided by some able choreography by Adam Cates. Kimmel shows good range throughout the show with such songs as “Good Girl/Bad Girl,” “The World of Tomorrow,” his ironic look at the future from the standpoint of the ’50s, the fun and Sondheim-styled “Things Are Gonna Be Changing Around Here,” a duet featuring Amy Bodnar and Rob Evan, and the wild, though totally inappropriate for the show, “The Brain Tap,” a tap dance number which sounds like it could easily find a home in The Drowsy Chaperone.

Even the book has its moments. The role of the Narrator (played with mock seriousness by Benjamin Clark) is spot on. From his notice that a nurse is standing by to assist those whose constitutions might too weak for a show this terrifying to his explanation of the wonder of Feel-O-Rama (a brilliant touch by Kimmel and Wechter), he pokes fun at the terrific excesses of these films. Indeed, when the dialogue is following or even slightly mocking the overwrought dialogue from the ’50s films, it works. It’s when the show veers toward total camp, cheesy one-liners, and novelty songs that it loses steam.

Even when the book doesn’t come through, the acting goes a long way toward making up for it. Of particular note are Merrill Grant as Donna Bunson, the good girl who really wants to be bad, Alet Taylor as the man-hungry space alien, Yoni. The pixyish Grant shows off her athletic ability and comic timing in “Good Girl/Bad Girl,” while trying her best to seduce her beatnik boyfriend (Paul Downs Colaizzo). Taylor shines at several points, most notably during her song “I Need An Earthman.” Chad Harlow deserves praise for his work as Private Partz, a non-speaking role that he plays with much aplomb. A mere roll of his eyes is enough to get the audience laughing.

Also worth noting is the herculean effort put forth by Barry Pearl as the Brain. Covered from neck to feet by a black sheath and wearing a gigantic brain helmet (one of many wonderful costumes designed by Jessa-Raye Court) so he appears to be a giant floating brain, he nonetheless manages to be dynamic and amusing.

The Brain From Planet X has its share of flaws, but if you are a fan of the old sci fi movies it sends up, or just want to enjoy some good music, it’s worth checking out. If you have a low tolerance for cheesy one-liners, this one probably isn’t for you.

Book by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel
Music and Lyrics by Bruce Kimmel
Directed by Bruce Kimmel
Choreographed by Adam Cates
Scenic Design: Heather Wolensky
Costume Design: Jessa-Raye Court
Lighting Design: Jason Scott
Sound Designer: Sara Even
Orchestrations: Larry Moore
Additional Vocal and Dance Arrangements: Lawrence Goldberg
Technical Director: Travis Walker
Stage Manager: Rachel Maier
Music Direction/Conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
Casting: Michael Cassara Casting
Publicist: Sun Productions, Inc.
General Management: Martian Entertainment, Carl D. White, Lauren P. Yates

Featuring Amy Bodnar (Joyce Bunson), Benjamin Clark (Narrator/Professor Leder), Paul Downs Colaizzo (Rod), Rob Evan (Fred Bunson), Merrill Grant (Donna Bunson), Chad Harlow (Private Partz/Ensemble), Joe Jackson (Ensemble), Naomi Kakuk (Ensemble), Cason Murphy (Zubrick), Denise Payne (Ensemble), Barry Pearl (The Brain), Richard Pruitt (General Mills), Alet Taylor (Yoni), Erin Webley (Ensemble), Steven Wenslawski (Ensemble)

Featured Musicians: Lawrence Goldberg (Keyboard 1), Brian Cimmet (Keyboard 2), Greg Thymius (Reeds), Marc Schmied (Bass), Aaron Russell (Drums)

Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street

Closes Sunday, September 30th, see for schedule and tickets