A&E | Northwest Herald

Review: ‘It Came From Outer Space’ a brilliant musical comedy

John Putnam (Christopher Kale Jones) is surrounded by Maizie (Ann Delaney), Borney (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis), and George (Alex Goodrich) in Chicago Shakespeare's world premiere production of "It Came From Outer Space."

Sometimes it can be fun to take a look back in time. Often, what seemed like stellar dramatic entertainment from yesteryear seems comical now. Embracing that unintentional humorous element can make for pretty outstanding modern musical comedy.

“It Came From Outer Space,” playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, follows in the tradition of such musicals as “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Toxic Avenger.” It takes a well-known older science fiction film and adapts it for the stage – upping the comedic campiness factor 100% and infusing the production with catchy, memorable songs.

The original “It Came From Outer Space” film was released in 1953, as Universal Pictures’ first 3D film. Based on a Ray Bradbury short story, “The Meteor,” the film follows an amateur astronomer and his fiancée who witness a meteor crash in the desert. The meteor turns out to be an alien spaceship whose non-Earthly inhabitants are able to take human form.

Making its world premiere, “It Came From Outer Space” has all the ingredients of an off-Broadway smash hit. The only reason I say off-Broadway, rather than Broadway, is that the production favors a more intimate space – such as the 200-seat theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.

“Little Shop of Horrors” took an old horror film and made it funny while staying true to the original script. “It Came From Outer Space,” however, rewrites much of the classic film with a heavy dose of absurdity. The result is hilarious – from the opening song to the finale, keeping the audience in stitches the entire 90 minutes.

The musical was commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and creative producer Rick Boynton. It reunites the theater company with Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair – the duo behind the book, lyrics and music for the 2011 hit “Murder for Two.” That predecessor musical deservedly won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical, and made a triumphant transition to off-Broadway.

Steering the “It Came From Outer Space” ship is director Laura Braza, associate artistic director for Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Braza’s command of the stage is clearly evident, as is her talent for comedy. Plain and simple, Braza is a brilliant director.

Bringing the story to life on stage is an ensemble of some of Chicago’s top talent. As alien-spotting scientist John Putnam, Christopher Kale Jones is borderline flawless. Hiding beneath an unimposing vanilla exterior is a wickedly fun song-and-dance man with near perfect comic timing. One of Chicago’s most respected actors, Jones perfectly captures the vibe of every quintessential 1950s sci-fi movie scientist.

Jaye Ladymore as Ellen Fields and Christopher Kale Jones is amateur astronomer John Putnam in Chicago Shakespeare's world premiere production of "It Came From Outer Space."

Putnam’s small-town fiancée Ellen Fields is played by the divine Jaye Ladymore, whom audiences will recognize for her role as Claudette Williams on the CW series “The 4400.” She has all the wide-eyed charm of an old-time love interest, but really excels when she slips in contemporary commentary and asides. Ladymore is a delight.

Four other actors portray all the remaining characters in the new stage musical – sometimes trickily appearing as multiple characters in the same scene. There aren’t words to properly celebrate what these four talented performers bring to the production.

Alex Goodrich, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Ann Delaney and Sharriese Y. Hamilton are insanely funny. In addition to being phenomenal comedic actors, they all have wonderful singing voices, and deftly handle the ingenious choreography of Dell Howlett.

While every member of the ensemble was deserving of the standing ovation it received on press night, Goodrich could get singled out for a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

All in all, the cast of “It Came From Outer Space” is one not to miss.

Costume design by Mieka Van Der Ploeg is simple but fun. Her costumes for the aliens in their true form are terrific comedic fodder when paired with the show’s witty dialogue and the actors’ spectacular character interpretations.

Not enough can be said about the influence scenic designer Scott Davis has on making this show the blockbuster it is destined to be. Aiding Davis in this mission are lighting designer Heather Sparling, sound designer Nicholas Pope, puppetry consultant Manual Cinema, and projections/video designers Rasean Davonté Johnson and Michael Salvatore Commendatore.

The musical begins with the song “We Are Out There” – an homage to science fiction films everywhere. Other standout numbers include “Brand New Start,” “Your Place,” “Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Desert” and “If the Humans Only Knew.” Of all the wonderful music, the song “I Can’t Figure Out Men” got the biggest reaction from the consistently enthusiastic audience on press night. Although sung by characters in a musical set in the 1950s, the lyrics and sentiment are applicable to today.

Music director Tom Vendafreddo is the man responsible for bringing the Blair/Kinosian score to life. He has done his job superbly. The cast is well-prepared to delight audiences, as is the orchestra made up of Kevin Reeks (associate music director/conductor/keyboard), Dave Victor (percussion), Sean McNeely (flute/piccolo/English horn/clarinet/alto saxophone) and David Orlicz (flute/clarinet/bass clarinet/tenor saxophone).

Incidental music is supplied by Lori Ashikawa (violin), Andy Baker (trombone), Wendy Benner (violin), Loretta Gillespie (viola), Sharon Jones (horn), Jill Kaeding (cello) and Zack Thomas (trumpet). Additional electronic music design is by Ethan Deppe.

If the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “It Came From Outer Space” does move to New York, I hope it keeps its core cast – because they are simply delightful from all angles. Don’t miss the opportunity to see comedic genius on stage.

On a serious note, the story’s theme of overcoming the fears of otherness is especially important today. It’s important not to jump to conclusions just because someone looks different or comes from a different background. Despite being a comedy, “It Came From Outer Space” delivers on this message.

[There will be an open-captioned performance July 20; an ASL duo-interpreted performance July 22; and audio-described performance July 24.]

• Rikki Lee Travolta originally was brought to Chicago to headline the hit “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” In 2005, he was named alongside Donny Osmond and Patrick Cassidy as one of the top headliners of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He still can be coaxed to perform from time to time.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “It Came From Outer Space”

WHERE: Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Upstairs space at Navy Pier

WHEN: Through July 24

COST: $50 to$60

INFORMATION: 312-595-5600, www.ChicagoShakes.com