Skylight Music Theatre is starting 2018 with the unmistakable sounds of a Theremin, in its big, silly, spot-on satire of 1950s space adventures, "Zombies from the Beyond." Using a pitch perfect cast, director and choreographer Pam Kriger brings her signature creativity and precision to this sci-fi romp that acknowledges and sends up all that was weird and wonderful about the 1950s.
And in the 1950s, American teens were going to the movies. It was an era of Eisenhower, the Cold War and "Rocking Around the Clock" with Bill Haley and the Comets. The Russians launched Sputnik and suddenly everyone was looking to the stars as the next frontier of exploration. Hollywood fed this fascination with hundreds of forgettable science fiction films, such as "Cat Women of the Moon" (1954), "It Came from Outer Space" (1953) and "The Man from Planet X" (1951).
These B-movies, filled with outlandish space aliens, strict gender stereotypes, awkward romances and the American desire to crush its enemies regardless of where they came from, inspired Milwaukee native James Valcq to pen this musical love letter to monsters and McCarthyism that prominently featured his hometown.
The show uses a terrific framing device – in addition to the distorted and warped actual frame of the set design. It opens with ’50s-esque film credits that set expectations appropriately when the special effects are credited to a local hardware store and every part of the newly mastered movie magic has a made-up, trademarked name.
Indeed, one of the highlights of the show is the comically nascent special effects, including a flying saucer made (I imagine) of two colanders painted bright fuschia, clearly pulled across the stage on a wire and additional spaceship frisbees that zip across the "screen." There’s also plenty of smoke, a crazy vacuum cleaner/ray gun and the astronomical surveillance console in Probe Seven Control Room, outfitted with a Schlitz beer tap, an egg timer and a jumble of wires, lights and buttons that could have come from a clothes dryer.
And the second act’s zombie invasion apocalypse, played out against the skyline of Milwaukee, is truly campy and sublime. It’s clear that scenic designer Aaron Dyszelski had as much fun creating the Milwaukee Space Center as the actors had playing with the important looking dials, buttons and walkie-talkies.
And make no mistake, the cast was having fun sending up each stereotype by executing them with complete seriousness. As Major Malone, Norman Moses is the ultimate military commander, sending his men into battle with the extra-terrestrials, sending his trusty secretary to type another memo, and sending his brainy and beautiful daughter home to make him dinner. Playing the his plucky daughter who just happens to pursue astronomy, photography and foreign languages as hobbies, Kathryn Hausman is delightful to watch. Part Nancy Drew, part love-lorn good girl with flowing brunette curls, she shines as the proto-feminist heroine. Her lovely soprano also makes songs like "Second Planet on the Right" and "In the Stars" soar.
As the wisecracking girl Friday, Meghan Randolph is sensational. Outfitted with an emerald, polka-dotted dress with plenty of crinolines and a red headed wig à la Lucille Ball, she’s the lonely and overworked second banana to a room full of stiff military types. With a bold brassy voice and a smile as big as the Hoan Bridge, she revels in her mission of sewing the boys’ spacesuits in "Blast Off Baby" and even finds a boy-next-door to love by the end of the show.
Matt Frye does a great mild-mannered scientist turned love interest, whipping off his Clark Kent glasses for effect. His gorgeous boy scout voice not only fits the character, it also valiantly overcame a lot of sound problems on opening night due to a faulty mic.
As the humble delivery boy with a heart of gold, Joe Capstick makes the most of his supporting role, stealing the show with his tremendous tap dancing. (An element that was normally was omitted from space adventures, it weirdly works here.) And as the sad-sack/scheming double agent, Rick Pendzich switches easily from average Joe to menacing Ruskie, and then again into an impressively obedient zombie. His jelly-legged physical transformation under the power of the evil Zombina was especially entertaining.
As the pink and sequin-clad alien vixen, SaraLynn Evenson has the unfortunate task of dominating men and terrorizing the audience with her secret weapon – a "shrill and paralyzing note" that is the highest tone above the scale I have ever heard a human produce. While she is clearly operatically trained and has a super-sonic range, this Zombina is stuck shrieking her super power in an anti-climactic song and dance duel, where she is, of course, vanquished.
Musically Valcq has created an impressive score that highlights styles from the period, from doo-wop to dance hits, and a script that is rife with sci-fi tropes and ’50s slang, leaning heavily on long strings of physics terms to sound futuristic. But the quality of the production actually exceeds the material in this homage to silly cinema, one that should tickle long-time Milwaukeeans especially with a cargo bay of the local references sprinkled throughout the story.