Terror! Thrilling mystery! Weird menace! Strange adventures on other worlds! The universe of future centuries!
These are actual teasers from the covers of pulp fiction magazines, popular in the 1920s and ’30s. Sensational horror stories filled with zombies, aliens, crazed robots and mad scientists (and also cowboys), they were printed on cheap "wood pulp" paper and sold by the thousands for as little as a dime apiece. Now Milwaukee Opera Theatre is celebrating the genre – a predecessor to modern comic books – through its new musical, "Doc Danger and the Danger Squad," playing through Aug. 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center. This is MOT’s second commission for local composer Jason Powell; their previous collaboration occupied a similarly quirky niche in the opera world, a superhero adventure called "Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom."
This time around, audiences are introduced to a host of good guys and bad guys, duking it out on the moon, in the jungle and even in a contemporary ad agency, when a young girl simply known as "the kid" (Harper Navin) discovers an action-packed pulp mag in the attic. With her long chestnut hair in two braids, glasses and her grandfather’s old cap perched on her head, the kid is just the kind of smart, nerdy girl one might expect to dive in to this genre.
And thanks to Powell’s modern sensibilities, the kid has a lot of tough, fearless, genius women to look up to in those yellowed pages. Doc Danger (Briana Rose Lipor) is a self-rescuing scientist who won’t be suckered into romance while there’s evil to be fought. Jesai of the Jaguars (Stephanie Staszak) has a whole ecosystem to protect, according to the laws of the jungle. The Lady in Black (Rae Elizabeth Paré) takes time out from her mysterious French Bohemian lifestyle to fight Lucifer, and Satellite Sally is a ray-gun toting outer space cowgirl, along with her somewhat disgruntled partner, Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch).
These powerful (yet fully clothed!) women must foil the plans of Professor Z (Eric Welch), the Beetle Queen (Ana Gonzalez, in a truly impressive multicolored beehive wig and antennae) and space cowgirl gone bad, Penny Dreadful (Becky Cofta). The professor’s robot MC7 (Melissa Anderson) appropriately signals danger for her evil master and tases humans when they try to meddle. Appropriate to a musical, Professor Z has kidnapped a composer (Sean A. Jackson) to create the ultimate dissonant chord that will destroy creativity throughout the universe. All of this mayhem occurs in front of a vividly colorful screen by set designer Lisa Schlenker, which mirrors a pulp novel cover. Lighting by Jason Fassl amplifies the bright, comic book palette.
There is a lot to love about this show, which toggles between the kid’s real life and her imaginary adventures as part of Doc Danger’s entourage. The "Bang!" "Boom!" and "Bing!" signs held up by the cast to punctuate fight scenes are on point. The loud, maniacal laughs of Professor Z and the Beetle Queen are pitch perfect, as is his creepy attachment to his pet cat (a stuffed animal). Clare de Lune’s plight as the unheralded sidekick is conveyed with just the right amount of angst by Esch. And the origin story songs "Who I Am and How I Came to Be," "Cowgirls on the Moon," and "Jungle Requiem" are exceptionally funny, inspirational and kitschy by turns. Finally, holy crumbs! Navin’s confident singing voice and stage presence make her an excellent guide in this wacky battle between worlds.
In any musical, there are some songs that are better than others. The same is true here. While the "let’s go get ‘em" song "No Stranger to Danger" is fun to hear reprised, "One Person’s Trash" feels tangential and a strange note to end on. And while the "Back to the Future"-esque second act, where the kid realizes she has messed with the space time continuum, is a clever plot twist, the present day woes of cubicle land just can’t compete with the fantastical world explored in the first act. (Although when Paré swaps her superhero guise for the mad typing of a movie blogger, her song "Zero Stars" is almost worth it.) And on a technical note, while all of the performers are excellent singers, some had a hard time projecting and creating character voices, rather than one more fit for a recital.
Although "Doc Danger" feels like it could have used an infusion from last season’s Skylight sci-fi send-up "Zombies from the Beyond," kudos goes to both Powell and Ponasik for this boldly inventive new piece. Tuneful, current and funny, it uses silly pulp fiction escapades to underline the need for strong, independent women, both past and present, on earth and in outer space.