Retro Riot

Gaslight bugs out with Batman Gnatman in the theatre's latest delightful farce

Holy leotard, Batman! Those evil geniuses at the Gaslight Theatre have taken your life's work and turned it into a musical parody called Gnatman! But even though the faithful Gaslight audience is cheering gnats instead of bats, the guano is still hitting the fan.

I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course. Gaslight Theatre makes a point of never, ever aspiring to high art, and if you enter the house expecting to be enveloped by the sophisticated wit of G.B. Shaw, you will surely leave feeling that you need to scrape something off your shoe. But it's funny when somebody--somebody other than you--steps in something icky. So if Gnatman! is just a bit of a mess, it's a rollicking mess, one of Gaslight's most enjoyable shows in a long time.

Writer-director Peter Van Slyke takes his inspiration not so much from the Batman comic books, and certainly not from the revisionist Dark Knight graphic novels, as from the tongue-in-cheek 1960s TV series. (Music director Linda Ackermann incorporates Neal Hefti's TV theme, as well as Danny Elfman's title music for the Tim Burton movie versions, into her opening number.) The climactic fistfight even includes word balloons flying overhead, exclaiming "Pow!" just like on the TV show.

In Gnatman! the plot, such as it is, involves a scheme to control the citizens of Mammoth City (apparently not to be confused with the mining town in Arizona) and convert them to the way of E.V.I.L.--that is, Everything Vile in Life. It's a villainous consortium led by the Jester (played by habitual bad guy David Orley), and including arch villains the Pelican (Mike Yarema) and Tiger Lily (Nancy LaViola on the night I attended). They've stolen a device that ... well, it doesn't really matter what it does, but they've stolen it from industrialist-philanthropist Kent Dale (David Fanning, reprising the role he originated five years ago) and his, um, ward, Jack Payson (Robert Shaw). Little do the bad guys know that Kent and Jack have secret identities: They're the crime-fighting Gnatman and his sidekick, Atom, the Teen Marvel. Eventually, they'll be joined in their heroic efforts by Gnatgirl (Deborah Klingenfus), who is actually a police official with a crush on Gnatman. Perhaps she should have called herself Fruitfly.

Meanwhile, the treacherous trio has drugged the city's mayor (Dan Gunther) and leading debutante (Kristina Sloan on the night I attended) and forced them to do their bidding. (Sloan and LaViola are really too cute to be convincing bad girls, but I suppose that's part of the joke.) The script could get by just fine without the mayor and debutante, but balance and restraint have never counted among Van Slyke's traits.

Also of dubious relevance is an early number in which Jack sings the virtues of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. Maybe it's supposed to establish how wholesome and innocent he and Kent are, yet, suspiciously, the number does leave them with sticky white stuff all over their mouths. Ditto their long-suffering British butler, a fairly small role assigned to habitual scene-stealer Joe Cooper. A bit of sloppiness with the whipped cream led to some ad-libbed fun last week. The Pelican spotted a white dollop on Kent's shoe and asked, "That wasn't me, was it?"

Departures from the script usually are highlights of a Gaslight show; when actors deliver their lines as written, we're in for a string of awful puns and shtick out of an old Jerry Zucker movie. (The mayor hangs up after a distressing phone call. "What is it, Mayor?" asks a bystander. He answers, "It's a telephone.")

The cast is certainly having a good time. Yarema does an excellent impersonation of Burgess Meredith's Penguin; Shaw is his usual good-looking and enthusiastic self; Orley makes the most out of a role that for once doesn't require him to look reptilian and bored ... really, there's something good to be said about everyone on stage. True, aside from Shaw, the men don't sing nearly as well as Sloan, LaViola and Klingenfus, but this isn't supposed to be Arizona Opera.

As always, the gang makes the most of Tom Benson's deliberately low-tech sets and miniatures. We get everything from Fanning leaning nonchalantly against a picture window that actually has no glass to a dorky little toy car speeding up a supposedly distant mountain road--this is a show with perspective! Not only that, but we also witness a midair helicopter chase, and a dam break and flood. I'd like to see what these guys would do with the total world collapse at the end of Wagner's Götterdâmmerung.

On the whole, the appropriated 1950s and '60s songs don't fit their new lyrics as well as they might (although changing "Hit the road, Jack" to "Squash the Gnat flat" isn't too bad). The more satisfying, if intentionally horrifying, musical moments come in the concluding olio, a spoof of The Gong Show. Cooper does a distressingly accurate impersonation of Chuck Barris as we are subjected to one gong-worthy act after another. The highlight is Dave Orley singing "Call Me" in a manner I will not even attempt to describe. LaViola as a Bo Derek look-alike doing a Jazzercise version of "Let's Get Physical" almost matches Orley's je ne sais quoi.

One last warning: Do not bring small children to this show if they are frightened by 1970s hairstyles.