Friday, Sept. 11, 2009

Invader? I Hardly Know Her Reviewed

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I was a bit uncertain of what to expect when going in to see the world-premiere opening of new Jason Powell musical at the Alchemist Theatre last night. The overall idea of Invader? I Hardly Know Her! sounds like a lot of fun, but it also sounds very ambitious. A cheesy sci-fi musical is a really refreshing idea precisely because it’s NOT the type of thing that usually makes it to the stage in Milwaukee, but if it’s not executed well enough it could really end up being exceptionally bad. At least one glowing impression of the script and the fact that it had been written by Powell, who works with one of the best sketch comedy groups in town, seemed like good indicators. The cast, which features some really solid comic talent, seemed equally promising.

Thankfully, the show is a really, really good time at the theatre. While far from perfect, Invader is an exceedingly satisfying comic space opera/American musical. Powell’s story has a lot going on in it. There are quite a few different elements at play with a number of different characters in the story, but Powell manages to juggle it all without losing the kind of speed and rhythm that make for a fun show. Accompanied by synthesizer, the sound of the music itself has a pleasantly infectious sort of an ‘80’s synth-pop feel to it. The space opera genre allows Powell an opportunity to use a far larger and far more interesting vocabulary for lyrics than is available to most musicals. Powell even manages to capture fleeting bits of sci-fi poetry in the mix. The two catchiest bits in the show, “Supernova,” and “I Hardly Know Her,” balance out the show’s two acts with a dozen others. Unless you’re averse to synth-pop, there’s nothing abrasively bad here. It’s all quite enjoyable, especially where it veers away from the type of moods and themes normally found populating a musical.

The technical end of the production feels a bit weak in places, but that’s to be expected with a show that is as ambitious as Invader. The synthesizer sometimes seems to fade-out into voices uncertain of what the right volume is. From where I was sitting in the second row, there was a vaguely tinny sound to the vocals at times. Costuming is pretty good, but one wonders how much better it might’ve been on a bigger budget. The set design is fun, but limited to the interior of a spacecraft in the second act. 

The story opens with Jack Warner (Nate Press) and Jennifer Ghebrox (Lisa Buchmeier) on their wedding day. The wedding doesn’t go quite as planned, however, as Jennifer turns out to be from another planet and her bridesmaids turn out to be genetically-engineered super spies for the US government. The central romance here feels a bit week, but mostly because it’s the type of thing normally found in a traditional musical. And  the “whole best-friend or lover turns out to be an alien” thing has been done before quite a lot, so it doesn’t feel particularly novel here. (Good example: Ford Prefect in BBC radio’s Hitchhiker’s Guide. Bad example: Kim Basinger in My Stepmother is an Alien . . . ) That being said, Buchmeier is charming and has a really nice voice and Press does brilliant things with this kind of role in this kind of production. Here he’s playing the straight man—a romantic lead who ends up being the only really normal guy in the entire show. Press does a really good job of keeping the show grounded in an emotional reality that’s actually kind of compelling. But the romance lacks any spark of novelty or originality to it. There are plenty of distractions from this central plot, so the romance never really has a chance to slow down the show. And the fact that the central romance of the musical feels kind of perfunctory actually ends up taking the comedy to another level. At one point, Press is beginning to launch into a solo about how emotionally conflicted he is when he is cut short and physically dragged out of the scene by a couple of aliens. Clever.

The rest of the cast feels a bit uneven. The biggest problem here is good talent getting under-used. With the size of the cast, it’s a bit of a disappointment not to see more of The Show’s Doug Jarecki, who does some of his best stuff here encased in corrugated cardboard as a devastatingly dangerous robot with an effeminate personality. Jarecki shows-up in a number of different roles, but none of them really get much time onstage. Libby Amato was a lot of fun as bridesmaid/undercover super agent Catherine Eddington, who develops an attraction for Warner and attempts to keep him from going through with marriage to the alien agent. There’s more that could’ve been done with the Eddington/Warner dynamic, but the plot was already too overpopulated with other elements. Jill Anna Ponasik is memorably enjoyable as the semi-Amerindian secret agent Lucy Walks-on-Sky, but she’s not given much time in the story either. So much of Invader’s charm comes from the generally fast pace of things, but with so many elements and so many characters, we never really get enough time any single one of them.

Far and away the single most impressive performance here ends up being Sophia Dhaliwal as government agent Sara Klock. Klock is easily the most interesting character in the first act, giving Dhaliwal a really good opportunity for a really fun performance. Dhaliwal is given some of the best lines in the show and she delivers on them brilliantly. She has staggeringly inventive comic instincts that manage to push for a kind of subtlety that really expands the humor in countless scenes.

Klock is a strong personality leading a group of women who have been genetically engineered to be sexy super-spies by shut-in geneticists who may be a little too obsessed with anime. The concept of a strong, beautiful feminist trying deal with women who have been genetically programmed to fit a less than liberated heterosexual male cultural stereotype has actually been done before, but this is a really interesting treatment of it. Like so many other plot elements in the show, it could’ve been expanded into its own feature-length comedy.

Invader? I Hardly Know Her runs now through September 27th at the Alchemist Theatre.


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