Make the Trek: "Return to the Forbidden Planet" reimagines "The Tempest" as a campy sci-fi musical
If you’re drawn to the idea of outdoor theater and goofy jukebox musicals that combine elements of Shakespeare and Star Trek—well, Scotty, the Penny Seats Theatre Company is currently staging a show in Ann Arbor's Burns Park that will likely beam you right up.
Return to the Forbidden Planet, by Bob Carlton, first hit London stages in the 1980s, and the show comically reimagines The Tempest with an assist from pop songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as the campy sci-fi film classic Forbidden Planet (1956).
Captain Tempest, played by a Shatner-esque Cordell Smith, has just launched with his crew (and the audience, otherwise known as the ship’s “passengers”) when the ship, the Albatross, finds itself in a meteor shower—thus cueing up “Great Balls of Fire,” naturally—and then drawn to the planet D’Illyria. There, a long-marooned father and daughter, Doctor Prospero (Will Myers) and Miranda (Ella Ledbetter-Newton), come aboard, as does their robot assistant, Ariel (Allison Megroet). Prospero tells his back story while pleading/singing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Soon, a huge, tentacled monster attacks the ship; past relationships come to light; schemes are hatched; a love triangle develops; and a grand sacrifice is made—conveyed via cardboard cutouts on sticks, in a kind of whimsical puppet show.
Playful conventions like this were what ultimately charmed me most about Return to the Forbidden Planet. With a running time of nearly two hours, the show’s overall conceit (and winky score) starts to wear thin after the first act, but it’s not for lack of enthusiasm on the part of the cast, many of whom provide instrumental accompaniment, helmed by music director Brian Ketner. (It’s rare that a ship’s crewmen just suddenly start playing trumpets and saxophones, yes?)
Myers has a contagiously good time as larger-than-life, pompous Doctor Prospero; Leah Gittlen, as the ship’s sassy science officer, delivers some of the show's strongest vocals; Ledbetter-Newton (fittingly) performs her songs with wide-eyed ingenue dramatics; and Megroet cashes in on a couple of the show’s most delightful moments, including her robotic translation of Phil Simmons’ choreography, and the tentacled monster’s takedown (which I won’t spoil here).
Director Tony Caselli’s affection for this material comes through, and he fully understands how to highlight (and pace) small bits of humor that might otherwise be lost. Amanda Bates’ cheeky scenic design—an outdoor set that evokes a spaceship’s interior and also allows for moments of puppetry and a monster attack—draws your eyes to its details, so that there’s always even more to notice and appreciate.
Meanwhile, Charlie Cato’s often-fun props (cardboard meteors, monsters, and more) deserve special mention, as does Julia Garlotte’s sound design, and Josh Rockwell’s lighting, which helps achieve the story’s illusions and shifts in tone. And finally, Rachel Buechele’s costume design takes just enough cues from Star Trek and visually makes the show’s sci-fi camp lineage absolutely clear.
As is always true with outdoor productions, Return to the Forbidden Planet must contend with occasional noise from airplanes, dogs, and passersby, as well as the weather (the performance I watched was delayed 30 minutes because of a rainstorm earlier in the day).
But this is exactly the kind of show that can withstand such obstacles and keep happily chugging along. Yes, as I mentioned before, it’s too long for its own good, and thus crosses the line of diminishing returns; but if you’re looking for an excuse to sit in a park (bring your own lawn chair) on a summer evening and watch a silly show that’s sole aim is to entertain you, look no further than Return to the Forbidden Planet.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
The Penny Seats Theatre Company's staging of "Return to the Forbidden Planet" runs in Ann Arbor's Burns Park through Saturday, August 19. Visit pennyseats.org for tickets and more details.