The latest offering at the Gaslight Theatre, Gnatman! is a campy, comic-book sendup of the Batman story, punctuated by oldies tunes sung and danced to the music of a live three-piece band. Perennial Gaslight hero David Fanning, togged in green tights, cape and gnat-like antennae, naturally saves the city, but not before he does battle with all manner of low-tech devices. There's the anti-static device, which freezes superheroes in place; the E.V.I.L. spray; the sleeping spray; the lip-balm paralyzer and, well, you get the idea.
Cornier than cornpone, the delightful script by Peter Van Slyke, who doubles as Gnatman's English butler, Manfred, is full of impossible puns and pop-culture references. (We were pleased to note that Gnatman even reads the Tucson Weekly on his rare leisure-time furloughs to his penthouse home.)
Van Slyke has included versions of all the standard Batman characters, and, tripling as director, he moves them all through the raucous physical comedy with grace. Catwoman is transposed to Tiger Lady, played by the feline Sarah Vanek; David Orley is the clown-suited Jester; and Joe Cooper, a Gaslight actor since 1983, is a nicely sinister Pelican. This E.V.I.L. crew makes short work of the easily thwarted defenders of the city: John Brownlee, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Old Pueblo's own Bob Walkup, is Mayor Bennington, while New York University student Jennifer Long is a suitably air-headed Miss Mammoth City Debutante.
And Van Slyke has given his plot a commendable feminist twist. Young Tracy Tyler, a police lieutenant, metamorphoses into Gnatgirl, and becomes indispensable to Gnatman's labors against E.V.I.L. Naturally the two gnat heroes go sweet on each other, despite the early protests of Gnatman's sidekick, the Teen Marvel. ("Holy Fifth Wheel!" he laments.) Karin Hendricks, who rotates the part of Gnatgirl with Jennifer Long, shone last Thursday evening. A sophomore in musical performance at the UA, Hendricks won over the audience with her sweet eagerness, and with a bluesy voice that was perfect for her songs of amorous longing.
Teen Marvel Kelby Thwaits, a recent UA vocal performance grad, also has a fine voice with a sonorous timbre, but (Holy Out of Control!) he just couldn't shake the giggles at the show. That's OK, though: The more he laughed, the more the audience hooted, and good-natured interaction is part of the Gaslight formula. Yet as casual as the atmosphere is--and as much as the audience is encouraged to boo the villains and cheer the heroes--the production is professionally done.
The painstakingly painted backdrops of Mammoth's cityscapes are surprisingly convincing, and a Hoover Dam, complete with cascading shiny blue paper waters, is a priceless piece of cardboard engineering. And if the dancing is, for the most part, executed by cheerful amateurs--poor Gnatman seems possessed of two left feet--it is cleverly choreographed by Mia Hansen, formerly of Up with People! Lithe Tiger Lady Sarah Vanek is a professional dancer, and the exception to the clunky dance rule.
After the show proper, playwright Van Slyke and actor Cooper do a two-man comedy act, interspersed with songs and dances of the '50s performed live on stage. The old-fashioned humor ("My pants have five legs, but that's OK--they fit like a glove") reinforces the impression given by the raucous live play. Gaslight is the closest thing Tucson has to a late, lamented populist art: Holy Vaudeville!