"Let's take it from the top of 'Goodness Gracious,'" director Drew Martorella says to eight jean-clad 20-somethings on a half-built plywood stage.
With that cue, a guitar player and keyboardist hit the first few notes of a familiar song. When the vocals come in, it becomes identifiable.
"Great Balls of Fire," popularized in 1957 by Jerry Lee Lewis, is among the menagerie of pop and literary references that Return to the Forbidden Planet spoofs. The musical — running in conjunction with A Midsummer Night's Dream as the annual Shakespearean launch to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' theater season — borrows its plot from the 1950s science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet, which itself was based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. In 1989, playwright Bob Carlton put the movie's intergalactic plot into blank verse and wrote classic '50s and '60s rock 'n roll songs into the score.
Cohesively blending the disparate elements of Shakespeare, sci-fi and rock, however, isn't the biggest challenge the show presents to Martorella. That would be the task of transforming the Gallery of Contemporary Art in UCCS' Science Building into a performance space.
With the campus undergoing construction, GoCA director Caitlin Green recently removed all gallery works from the space to focus on site-specific exhibits elsewhere. TheatreWorks seized the opportunity to use the visual-art studio for theater for the first time in a decade. The crew has since turned a blank, white-walled room into a fully functional theater — electricity, acoustics, stage and all.
The ambitious undertaking also marks Martorella's directorial debut with the company. Though the longtime stage manager served as producing director for TheatreWorks since 1995 and was recently dubbed executive director, he hasn't staged a play since 2001, when he directed two one-act Harold Pinter shows at Tom McElroy's CHAOS Studios.
If he feels any apprehension, Martorella refuses to let on.
"It feels terrific," the 42-year-old insists. "I am thrilled to be back."
So much so that he won't worry about missing some of the script's inside jokes and allusions.
"I'm not a Shakespearean scholar," he says, "so I only catch, oh, say, about three-fourths of them."
For those less well-versed, the straightforward language of pop music provides escape from that dense, poetic dialogue. ("Born to Be Wild," "Monster Mash" and "Pretty Woman" all get their due recognition.)
Return to the Forbidden Planet was written as the Broadway wave of "jukebox musicals" first built. After it premiered in 1989, dozens of shows incorporating the music of a specific era or band made their way to Broadway during the 1990s and early 2000s.
For instance, Boogie Nights premiered in 1997 with a score comprised entirely of 1970s songs, followed by Mamma Mia! in 1999, which exclusively featured ABBA music. Queen, Billy Joel and John Lennon each had their catalogs turned into jukebox musicals. As blogcritics.org points out, however, jukebox musicals are often met with scathing reviews and lukewarm audiences. With the exception of Mamma Mia!, most fall quickly into obscurity.
Forbidden, despite the overt goofiness of its musical choices, has also proven an exception to the jukebox rule. It won the Laurence Olivier Award, one the most prestigious London theater honors, for Best New Musical in 1990.