Monday, May 12, 2014

Oh Fortuna: A Superhero Operetta

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The big surprise is not that it’s a solidly produced, little opera. That much can be expected from Jill Anna Ponasik’s Milwaukee Opera Theatre, a remarkably savvy musical group. The big surprise isn’t that the show itself is cleverly scripted and composed. That much can be expected from the work of Jason Powell. The real surprise with Fortuna the Time Bender Vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom is the fact that it works so well as a light comic superhero story. Really, the story that Powell came up with for this show would work well in just about any format. The fact that it’s live on an intimate stage is just extra.

Samantha Sostarich is stunningly charismatic in the title role. Fortuna is an altruistic crime fighter who can slow time. Sostarich has the traditional golden age super hero form and posture down brilliantly. Not long into the beginning of the show, she has completely eliminated crime in the town of Anyville.

Jonathan Stewart is endearing as a directionless man named Joe who is partially inspired by Fortuna into donning a cape and attempting to fight crime as well. Melissa Kelly Cardamone is a lot of fun in the role of Joe’s girlfriend Liz, who inadvertently pushes Joe into a life of crime fighting when she tells him that he needs to follow his dreams. Not defined by her relationship to him, Liz is a museum curator with an active role in the plot all her own. Cardamone has a cleverly sharp comic instinct that serves the role well. Even with the depth Powell gives her, Liz could have been substantially flat but for very clever work on the part of Cardamone.

Nathan Wesselowski plays the antagonist, an evil genius in the mold of a Bond villain. He’s a headmaster who is aided by three femme fatale schoolgirls played by Katy Johnson (who has a deft handle on some of the more tricky dialogue in the role of the genius) Lisa Morris (who plays the cute, girly one) and Rana Roman (who is commanding in the role of mature intellect of the  group.)

The plot is clean and fluid. It feels like a classic action film. Powell adds in more than a few little bits of cleverness to make the thing feel very unique. A fan of the superhero genre in grade school, I was expecting the plot to be kind of a superficial fusion of comic book and Gilbert & Sullivan-style operetta. As it turns out, Powell actually spends quite a bit of time in the course of the story exploring some pretty sophisticated ends of the super hero milieu. Super powers as discussed at length here show a love of Claremont’s X-Men. (He mentions having an extensive collection of the books in the show’s program.) I could geek out on mentioning specifics, but suffice it to say, there’s a lot here for a fan of the genre without alienating people who just want to go to see an intimate stage musical.

What’s more, Powell is also exploring some interesting things thematically. There’s a pretty well-defined debate on differing ends of feminism in a song shared between Liz and the school girls. The evident liberation of consciously adopted girlishness as a form of empowerment. And it’s set to music. Weird, but also oddly compelling. Depth in this show can come where you least expect it. Three villains dressed as sexy schoolgirls could have been a throwaway gag, but Powell manages to find something more in it.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Fortuna the Time Bender Vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom runs through May 24 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For tickets and more information, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.


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