Fun for the Soul

Gaslight Theatre continues its tradition of over-the-top and purposefully hokey entertainment.

Think of the Gaslight Theatre as your one-stop source of quality junk food for the body and spirit.

The milkshakes are thick and chunky, the pizzas substantial and free of self-consciously healthful toppings, and the entertainment is just like the pizza--cheesy, messy and irresistible.

Gaslight started out in the late 1970s as a purveyor of campy Western musical melodramas. Over the years, the theater has increasingly sent the Western shtick riding off into the sunset, with primary writer-director Peter Van Slyke parodying any genre he can get his sticky fingers onto. The current show opened last month and continues through Aug. 16; Lady Liberty, or Let Freedom Sing takes on comic book superheroes and supervillains, plus old Saturday morning serials.

It follows the tried-and-true Gaslight formula: Throw a bunch of accomplished thespian-singers onto the stage, encourage them to overact their way through a hopelessly nonsensical story and frequently break into old pop songs, and goad the audience into hissing the villains and cheering the heroes. The plot details don't really matter, but just for the record, we'll try a synopsis:

The time is 1975; the place is Manhattan. Dr. Von Weezer, a brilliant scientist with a German accent as thick as a bucket of sauerkraut, is the head not only of the Freedom League of America (the league's other member is the manly, fleet-footed superhero known as The Streak), but also of the Museum of Scientific Phenomena. One of the museum's prize holdings is a large "protein crystal" formed in the year 240 when volcanic eruptions destroyed the island of Atlantis. Turns out that an Atlantis princess has been trapped in the crystal all this time, and when she's revived, she proves to have incredible strength. Thus is born the league's second superhero, Lady Liberty.

But nasty aliens from the future have arrived to steal a piece of the crystal, with which they plan to create a weapon that will allow them to control the universe. You can guess what happens next, and next, and next.

I hadn't been to a Gaslight show in several years, and I discovered upon my return that some things hadn't changed. Tom Benson's scenic design and the show's special effects are intentionally hokey and endlessly inventive; the costumes by Patricia Gawne are fabulously silly; Lisa Otey's musical direction is lively and witty (how does she do this night after night, year after year?).

But a few things were a little different. A lot of the song fodder in older shows was drawn from the 1950s and '60s, but--either because Lady Liberty is set in 1975 (for no specific reason) or because the past is catching up with us--this production pillages the '70s and '80s to abuse such chart-toppers as "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "Fame" and "Dancing Queen." Company mainstay Tim Gilbert, "the guy with the eyes," retired two years ago, and some of the other Gaslight fixtures of the '80s and '90s are sitting out this show. The current cast seems less inclined to mock, yet save each other when somebody forgets a line (perhaps in part because these actors seem less inclined to forget lines), and they don't play little insider games, like working some random word-of-the-evening into the script at the most unusual moments.

The result, I suppose, is that the fun is more consistently directed toward the audience, which is a benefit to people who aren't longtime Gaslight fans.

This cast certainly can't be faulted for a lack of energy or sheer talent. Among the good guys, Karin Hendricks is an irrepressible Lady Liberty, Dan Gunther a good-natured, all-American Flash and James Gooden a Dr. Von Weezer who's part Ludwig von Drake and part Dr. Strangelove. The evil-doers include Tom Potter as the put-upon lizard-man slave Grok (great tongue action), Monick Tijerina as bounty hunter Galaxia (she looks like Pat Benatar turned wu shu master), Dave Orley as the evil prime minister Soltan (with the perfect villain accent; he pronounces "protein" in three syllables), Kylie Arnold as the energetic and vicious Queen Aquinetta and John Brownlee as the Vulcan-like Ambassador Prevarious. Among them, Hendricks, Tijerina and Arnold are the most engaging, visceral singers.

After the main show, the actors change into Gilligan's Island outfits for the olio, an unrelated sequence of songs and blackouts propelled by exceptionally bad puns.

So it's business as usual at the Gaslight Theatre, and that's a good thing, except that writer-director Van Slyke missed one obvious joke: The Streak meant something quite specific in 1975, but that short-lived fad of hanging loose and running free seems not to have caught on with our superhero of the same name. Perhaps that would have required a change of venue to TD's Show Club.

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