Love Between The Strangest of Strangers

It Happened In Roswell (NoHo Arts Center)userpic=theatre_musicalsHow do you celebrate your anniversary? Dinner? Flowers? Expensive trinkets? This year, we celebrated by going to the theatre, and what we saw turned out to be the perfect anniversary love story to see. It was a story about a quest to find true love, even when the government is after you. Perhaps I should explain…

Two weeks ago, when we were at The Colony Theatre (FB), we saw a postcard for a limited run (8 performances) of a new musical being workshopped by New Musical Inc. This musical won the 2014 Search for New Musicals, as well as the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2008, and the Festival of New Musicals in 2007. Further, it looked like one of those “outer space alien attack” musicals we’ve grown to love, in the genre of “Brain from Planet X“, “It Came From Beyond“, “Zombies from the Beyond“, or even “Return to the Forbidden Planet“. It was playing on our 29th wedding anniversary, and so we thought it might be a kick to go to the show.  So last night, after a wonderful dinner of Puerto Rican food, and even though I was recovering from a migraine, we were at the NoHo Arts Center to see the developmental workshop production of “It Happened in Roswell: An Intergalactic Musical“.

Going in, I expected this musical to be similar to the others we’ve seen — loosely based on a pre-existing cheesy movie, with songs that were more in the novelty vein than moving the story forward. The plots tend to be similar: in act I the alien comes to earth with the intent to attack and enslave the humans, in act II the humans triumph over the aliens. That wasn’t Roswell; at least to me, Roswell was a new and clever twist on the alien visit approach. Here’s the story of It Happened In Roswell, which has book, music, and lyrics by Terrence Atkins (FB) and Jeffery Lyle Segal (FB):

Down on his luck Weird World News reporter Joe “Scoop” O’Reilly and his photographer, Frank, break down outside Roswell, NM. His latest story having been a bust and hearing a report about a flying saucer on the radio, they decide to fabricate a story by taking a picture of a hubcap in the air and pretending there was a saucer. This they do, and they head into town to transmit the picture to their editor. When they arrive they go to Mabel’s Diner, where Mabel Brown and her daughter, Betsy, work. Betsy has been fending off the advances of the Deputy Sheriff Rusty Dobbs with a story of another man (when she really lusts after the flat-footed mechanic, Floyd Dimwitty). When Scoop and Frank arrive, they convince Floyd and Betsy to go to the outskirts of town and tow in their car, while Rusty and another women customer, Edna, go off to find the aliens. When Floyd and Betsy arrive at the car, they discover the actual flying saucer, and the female alien, Nine-O. Nine-O explains that she has come to the planet to find out about love. After making some advances on Floyd, Betsy convinces her to come back to the diner where they will pass her off as her distant cousin, Aileen. This starts a number of sequences in motion including the hunt for the alien, including Frank inventing a hideous-looking alien with tenticles. Scoop wants to get a picture of someone being attacked by the fake alien, so he romances Aileen… with predictable results. Yes, they fall in love with each other. The remainder of the story addresses how they resolve that love, how the various other romances resolve, and how they survive while being changed by Major Nails.

As I stated above, this was a developmental workshop. Every expense was spared in developing the set and props — and it worked to the advantage of the show. The production was presented on the existing set of the NMI musical “Max Factor”, and so the only “scenery” was a “Welcome to Roswell” sign and a few 2x4s that formed a little table. Additionally, there was a table in the back where the actor who played Major Nails set with the script, making all the sound effects. The only props were a flying saucer on a stick, the alien tenticle costume, and loads and loads and loads of loads of little white signs on sticks. These signs had pictures of ray guns, real guns, food, and anything else they needed as a prop… including words and instructions to the audience. We understand the necessity of this due to the workshop nature of the show… but guess what… it worked great. If this show moves on, we recommend they keep this approach for the props — realism might hurt the show (well, unless it really makes it to Broadway, but then it would need the Little Shop of Horrors treatment with full orchestrations and five part harmonies and circles and arrows and paragraphs on the back… oh, wrong song).

So far, we have a unique story and a unique staging. There also was a top-notch cast. In the lead positions (which you know from the opening number) were Julie Tolivar (FB) as Nine-O/Aileen and Rory Dunn (FB) as Scoop. Tolivar’s alien was a delight — she had a lovely naivete combined with an underlying seriousness of purpose that was fun to watch, combined with a very cute and slghtly-sexy costume. She sang very well and had a lovely voice on numbers such as “Nothing Is Stopping Me”, although she would benefit from a bit of amplification. She also danced very well. Equally strong (and according to my wife, sexy) was Dunn’s Scoop. He, too, had an excellent voice and a personality that shone through the character; the two actor’s voices blended beautifully in “Shooting Star” — you could believe these two as a couple. Just fun to watch.

However, I must admit that Tolivar wasn’t my favorite actress in the piece. That honor goes to Amy Bloom (FB) as Betsy, who had a look and a voice and movement that just melted me. It was just a delightful innocence that she portrayed. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she sang wonderfully — especially in combination with the other female voices — Carrie Madsen (FB) as her mother Mabel, and Emma Sperka (FB) as the oversexed Edna. When the three of them sang together in the early number “When Will the Ice Man Come?” — the blending of the voices was just spectacular. Bloom used her delightful innocence quite well, but especially in her scenes with Nathan Ondracek (FB) as Floyd. Ondracek had a light voice that my wife also liked (I’m not a great judge of men’s voices), and it too worked very well in his numbers with Bloom such as “As Free as the Stars”.

Rounding out the cast, as I mentioned before, were Carrie Madsen (FB) as Mabel Brown, and Emma Sperka (FB) as Edna. Both sang and acted well; Madsen had a particularly nice number in “Every Day”. Emerson Boatwright (FB) was a wonderful comic sidekick as Frank, especially in his scenes as the tentacled alien. Matthew Herrmann (FB) played the deputy sheriff with the hots for Betsy very well. Lastly, John McCool Bowers (FB) (who we’ve seen before at both Simi Valley ARTs and Cabrillo), was a hoot #1 as Major Nails, but even more of a hoot (#2) as the sound effects guy in the background during the first act.

Lastly, I want to applaud the actors for having fun with this musical… and for letting the audience share in their joy of performing it. When the actors enjoy the show and the work, it is broadcast to the audience and everyone wins (and an additional thank you to those actors who gave their websites in their bios!)

I’ve said before that It Happened in Roswell, was a musical… so how was the music? I should note that, as a workshop, the sole musical accompaniment was a single piano off to the side. I’m guessing it was Ron Barnett, the Music Director, tickling the ivories. The songs in the show ranged from nice character songs to lovely ballads. There was only one number that was really a novelty number (“The United Forces of Dancing”), but it proved later to be integral to the plot (although not, as you might think, through dancing). It would be interesting to hear the numbers with full orchestration; still, I love rinky-tinky piano and piano only scores (the piano-only version of “I Do! I Do!” is much nicer than the full orchestration).

The choreography was by Susanna Young (FB), who created some lovely dance moves for a workshop production.

Turning to the remaining creatives…  as noted before, there was no set and thus no credited scenic designer. There were master carpenters, however, consisting of the co-author, Terrence Atkins (FB); the Marketing Manager, Gavin Atkins/FB; and Wade Clegg. The inventive props were by Scott Guy, who also co-directed the production (together with Terrence Atkins (FB)). The costumes were by Abel Alvarado (FB) and were quite good for a simple workshop (although, if this were a real production, the Major needed proper boots). The alien tentacled costume was particularly inventive. Jules Bronola was the wardrobe head. Lindsey Mixon (FB) was the casting director (and has the cutest baby, who was visiting at intermission). Pat Loeb was the stage manager.

As this is a developmental workshop, I tried to figure out what requires improvement before it is produced. In fact, it was one of the topics of discussion between my wife and I on the ride home. The answer really depends on where the musical wants to go. In its present form, it is about perfect for an intimate to small-midsize house (e.g., something the size of the Mark Taper Forum, Colony Theatre, or Kirk Douglas). Work might be required were it to go into a larger house, but this would be more fleshing out the movement, choreography, and orchestrations. The larger problem would be one of depth, as this is not a “serious” musical or play. Houses — even intimate venues — that go for the more established and deep stories might be less inclined to produce this. I’m not sure how to fix this, as I feel what makes this musical so fun is the tongue-in-cheek nature. If I had to compare it with something, it might be the “39 Steps” quasi-parody that was on Broadway. It had a sense of manic silly earnestness that helped it succeed, and the approach with the signs created that here. I hope this musical does well; we certainly enjoyed it.

The developmental workshop production of “It Happened in Roswell” has (looks at watch) 3 more performances: tonight at 8pm (better hurry), Sunday August 24, and Monday August 25. Purchase tickets through, or visit the show website.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Next weekend we’ll be on vacation in Escondido, where there are a number of potential productions… and out of the many available, we have picked Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe on Sunday, 8/24, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town on Wednesday, 8/27.  I’ll note that what they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads and underwhelming. August will end with “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at REP East (FB). September is filling out. So far, the plans include “Earth/Quaked starring Savion Glover” as part of Muse/ique in Pasadena on Sun 9/7,  “Moon Over Buffalo” (Goldstar) at the GTC in Burbank on Sat 9/13, Bat Boy: The Musical” at CSUN for the Friday night before Slichot (9/19), “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB) on Sun 9/21,  “What I Learned in Paris” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sat 9/27. October, so far, only has one show: “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25, although I’m looking at “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at the Group Rep (FB) for either Sat 10/11 or Sat 10/18 (when Karen is at PIQF). November is back to busy, with dates held or ticketed for “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sat 11/8 (shifting to avoid ACSAC), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11,  “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.