Review: ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ at the Greenbelt Arts Center

Greenbelt Arts Center’s production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, written by Bob Carlton and directed by Jeffrey Lesniak, takes the audience for a rowdy rocket ship ride from earth to d’Illyria, which is, you guessed it, a forbidden planet. The crew/actors warned the audience in the opening lines that this isn’t a “NASA” production due to “budget cuts,” but like the B-movie cult classic Forbidden Planet on which the musical is based, this production kept audiences entertained and engaged.

Todd Hines, Aerika Saxe, H. Brett Rohrer, and Pamela Northrup in Return to the Forbidden Planet. Photo by Kristofer Northrup.

This “jukebox musical” melodically juxtaposes some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines from plays like The Tempest, King Lear, and Hamlet, with the lively lyrics of 1950s and 1960s rock and roll songs, like “It’s a Man’s World,” “Teenager in Love,” and “She’s Not There.” The show generally follows the plot of the1956 Sci-Fi classic Forbidden Planet, while borrowing character names and lines from Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. Playwright Bob Carlton takes the Shakespeare lines, recrafts them into “Fakespeare,” and masterfully meshes them in with rock and roll.

In this musical, a crew of space explorers aboard the Starship Albatross takes off to the sounds of “Wipe Out,” has a women’s liberation era show-down between the newly assigned female science officer, Gloria, and the starship’s commander, Captain Tempest, to “It’s a Man’s World,” and goes through a meteor field. They lose Gloria, who has taken the crew’s only shuttle, and crash onto d’Illyria with the whole crew singing “Great Balls of Fire.” And that’s just in the first 15 minutes.

On the planet, the explorers meet with Professor Prospero who has been marooned there with his daughter, Miranda, for 15 years. A love triangle ensues between Captain Tempest, Miranda, and Cookie, the spaceship’s cook, and the mystery of the planet, the cause of Prospero’s isolation, and Gloria’s disappearance are all duly revealed.

The musical portion of this production outshone the spoken word, with star performances by Aerika Saxe (Miranda) who combined wide eyes, hopeful smiles and pouty lips with her clear, resonant voice to convince the audience that she was an innocent little girl in her rendition of “Teenager in Love;” Pamela Northrup (Gloria) who trilled a soulful version of “Go Now;” and Todd Hines (Tempest) who not only solidly performed “Young Girl” but delighted the audience by playing the trumpet during “Wipe Out.” The audience was thrilled by Joey Rolandelli’s (Cookie) emotional portrayal of an unrequited lover while he sang “She’s Not There” and smashed his “air” guitar on the stage.

Courtney James and Joey Rolandelli (foreground), and Michael Heney and H. Brett Rohrer (background) in Return to the Forbidden Planet. Photo by Kristofer Northrup.

Kudos to the band as well: Robert Gersten (percussion), John McCloskey (bass), James Olsen (keyboard), Jeff Pattison (guitar/backup vocals), and Christine Wells (music director, and lead keyboard). Their perfect timing, delivery, and harmony fueled the show and carried the production to journey’s end.

Asteroids weren’t the only danger, however. Some of the actors need a little more preflight training and the set, while beautiful, is not always functional. Aref Dajani (Prospero) seemed to run out of rocket fuel while delivering some of his lines during the first act, although he seemed to have refueled by the second, and while Michael K. Heney (Bosun Arras) remembered most of his lines, his delivery was robotic, perhaps because this is his first production with a speaking part.

Rolandelli and Heney got out of time with the band while singing “It’s in Her Kiss,” and for many of their speaking parts Heney and Brett Rohrer (Navigation Officer) had their backs to the audience because their stations were built with the seats facing the wall. And that last part is a shame because Rohrer delivered his lines with feeling and perfect pacing, but the audience rarely saw him deliver them.

Costumes by Jeane Binney were whimsical and contributed to the feeling of being on a space exploration mission. The red coveralls worn by the male crew members and red flared dresses for the female crew members connected them into a cohesive team. The cast on the forbidden planet wore extraterrestrial costumes that set them apart, including a creative ensemble for the android/robot, Ariel (played by Courtney James), Miranda’s shiny silver dress, and Prospero’s blue coveralls replete with his name tag and profession – Evil Genius – which was genius touch.

The rousing, sing-along songs, emotions evoked by and tied to the forbidden planet – love, desire, revenge, envy, violence, and unbridled ambition – combined with lovely musical performances make Greenbelt Arts Center’s production of Return to the Forbidden Planet an entertaining musical that’s sure to please.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Return to the Forbidden Planet runs through June 9, 2018, at the Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 441-8700, or purchase them online.