“Doc Danger” full of promise and bright moments, but needs to find some clarity

Harper Navin is a show stopper in “Doc Danger and the Danger Squad”

The era of pulp fiction in this country spanned about about 50 years and created a whole panorama of heroes and villains and adventures that were powerful weapons in the real life battle against a collective national consciousness wracked by loss and  uncertainty.

It was after the turn of the last century until the end of World War II that the pulp magazines, featuring a parade of good and evil that seemed to have no end: Nick Carter, The Avenger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Avenger, Captain Future, Tarzan, Zorro and Buck Rodgers.

And, for me, The Shadow. When I was a mere boy nothing beat the Sunday nights in front of the radio when I heard those famous words – “What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men – The Shadow Knows.”Stacks of cheap books underneath my bed, the Shadow and dozens of others.

Stacks of cheap books underneath my bed, the Shadow and dozens of others.

It was a world of fantasy and mystery created in books and radio, before television and before the end of the second world war. They were cheap and escapist and an important part of the lives of adults and kids alike.

Which brings us to the debut of “Doc Danger and the Danger Squad,” the overwhelmingly endowed Jason Powell musical that opened at the Broadway Theater Center under Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s ever-fascinating umbrella.

Mr. Powell, who never met a bizarre oddity he didn’t like, has written his own pulp magazine, aided and abetted by a high class crew of directors and designers and a cast of a dozen youthful performers who had an overflowing abundance of the kind of exuberance that this production demands.

There was nothing subtle about the characters in the pulp magazines. They were broadly drawn and there was little or no doubt about what challenge the hero faced. Was there a girl tied to a train track and you could hear the whistle coming? Did someone steal the jewels? Blackmail was afoot, but nobody could figure out what was going on.

The hallmark of the great pulp magazines was that the reader knew what had to be done, almost from the start. The mystery and thrill was in the getting to the resolution.

If Mr. Powell’s script has any problem it may well be that it is so burdened with cleverness that the clarity of the mystery is hard to grasp. At intermission I spoke with several people about what they thought was the aim of the hero, what did the story need to happen.

The answers were all vague with no specificity and no sense that anyone had a grasp of where this story was headed. I, too, was confused. I know a gem had been stolen and that there was a machine that had gone missing, and there had been a girl strapped to a train track who had barely escaped.

But there was very little distinct sense of direction. I was unsure where we were headed.

Oh, Mr. Powell made it easy to identify the heroes and the villains and there were a series of numbers, each of which provided enjoyment. He has a way with words that create lyrics that are unique and always interesting. There is a lot of humor and some more serious,a and touching, moments.  

A perfect example of his skills as a librettist comes early in the show when he introduces two heroes, the cowboy pair of Satellite Sally (Carrie Gray) and Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch)

SALLY/CLARE
We’re cowgirls! Cowgirls!
And we’re taking off through starry skies On another enterprise,

SALLY
Like when we landed on Saturn’s ring
And took down the villainous Vulture King!

CLARE
(I got nicked by his right wing!
Woo-ee! That wound still sure does sting.)

SALLY
Or cornered Black Hole Bart’s black ship On that old Mercury airstrip!

CLARE
(Since then, I’ve got one bad hip
From the bullet with the Mercury tip.)

SALLY/CLARE
We’re cowgirls on the moon: Satellite Sally and Clare de Lune!
Confronting crooks in craters near a crescent-shaped sand-dune,

CLARE
We’re cowgirls! Cowgirls!
Cowgirls on the moon,

SALLY/CLARE
And we’re taking off through starry skies On another enterprise,

SALLY
Like when we faced that rogue robot Alone on Jupiter’s red spot!

CLARE
(I’ve still got a gnarly knot
From where I took some laser shot.)

 SALLY
Or went cruisin’ in our rocket-cars After criminals who fled to Mars!
(I’ve still got some mental scars

CLARE
From the drinks they serve in those Mars bars.)

SALLY/CLARE
We’re Cowgirls on the Moon: Satellite Sally and Clare de Lune,
With a friendship that you can’t eclipse and pluck you can’t impugn,

One of the most serious challenges facing a transition from the written word to the stage is to recognize the vast difference between the two platforms. In a book, the reader can pause, turn back, re-read and clarify.

On a stage, you only have one chance to bring the audience along the path you want them to follow. If you lose them once, you have probably lost them until the final curtain.

This production does serve as an introduction to a whole bunch of new voices in the Milwaukee musical theater scene. They are young voices and are still working to find the kind of dynamic that more seasoned voices bring to a stage, but they captured the breadth of their characters easily.

One absolute standout was Harper Navin, who played the role of the kid, the creator and sole member of the Danger Squad.

Ms. Navin, who will be a freshman at Franklin High School this year, is a magnetic performer, with a sophisticated voice and acting chops that are a credit to some serious training. I hope to see more of her on Milwaukee stages soon.

Mr. Powell wrote the wonderfully successful opera  “Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schools of Doom” for MOT. It’s an exciting show, with similar demands on an audience and an audience need not spend any time trying to figure out what’s going on.

It might be fruitful to extend the work on Doc Danger to make it easy to follow the action so that we know how all of the marvelous pieces fit together.

A final note: Milwaukee Opera Theatre is as committed as any company in town to fostering new and unique works. I can only think of two current Milwaukee playwrights who have had full productions of their works, Liz Shipe and Mr. Powell. MOT deserves immense credit for its efforts.

“Doc Danger and the Danger Squad” runs through Aug. 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Cast: Doc Danger, Brina Rose Lipor; Jesai of the Jaguars, Stephanie Staszak; Satellite Sally, Carrie Gray; Clare de Lune, Hannah Esch; Lady in Black, Rae Elizabeth Pare; Professor Z, Eric Welch; The Beetle Queen, Ana Gonzalez; Penny Dreadful, Becky Cofta; Demon/Robot/Mom, Melissa Anderson; Robert Von Hesslington, Sean A. Jackson; The Kid, Harper Navin.

Production Credits: Words and Music, Jason Powell; Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director Donna Kummer; Choreographer, James Zager; Stage Managers, Jim Padovano, Sarah Acker, Ceci Scalish; Sets and Properties Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Lighting Design, Antishadows LLC; Costume Designer, Molly Mason; Sound Design, David A. Robins; Wig and Makeup Design, Eric Welch; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner. 

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Chamber’s Sherlock is Less than the Sum of It’s Parts

Rick Pendzich, Kay Allmand and Brian J. Gill in Sherlock Holmes comedy at Chamber Theatre. (photo by Paul Ruffalo

If you think about it, any theatrical production can pretty easily be divided into five distinct parts that all end up trying to work together.

First you have the cast, secondly you have the director, thirdly you have the designers (set, sound, lights, costumes, props), stage management and, finally, the play.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has opened the Milwaukee theater season by staging “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of The Jersey Lily.”

It’s a nice thing to see on a summer night, but unfortunately you will only see four fifths of a great experience.

This production is bedeviled by the singular thing that is impossible to overcome – the play itself.

Katie Forgette has written a mystery/comedy about Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde, a pairing with immense possibility. But she traps the troupe of wonderful actors in a shallow ditty rather than a deep and fascinating melding of two very special characters.

The backstory involves the theft of secret love letters, allegedly written by Lillie Langtry (Kady Allmand)  to a member of the English royal family. She is being blackmailed for a huge ransom but doesn’t know who is doing the blackmailing.

She and Oscar Wilde (Rick Pendzich) decide to take the case to Sherlock Holmes (Brian J. Gill) who, with Dr. Watson (Ryan Schabach) by his side, hears her out.

So, we have now established the mystery that needs to be solved. And therein lies the rub.

In Ms. Forgette’s play, everything comes too easy.

Holmes figures all sorts of stuff out early and with almost no help from Watson, flying in the face of the Sherlock Holmes books. Watson here is reduced to a sniveling, star-struck groom to be. There is none of the interplay between the two of them that help make all these stories so interesting.

Ms. Forgette has drawn characters that are almost without substance. The evil Professor Moriarty (Matt Daniels) and Mr. Smythe and Abdul Karim (both played by Jesse  Bharmrah) are created as caricatures and despite earnest efforts by Mr. Daniels and Mr. Bharmrah, they remain without the kind of substance the two conspirators need.

Perhaps the most fully developed characters both belong to Karen Estrada, one of the best comic actors in this city. She plays the housekeeper Mrs. Tory and the third conspirator, Mrs. Glynn with the kind of alomb we expect from her.

Ms. Allmand gives us a Lillie that has the kind of ethereal beauty, socialite bearing and accomplished actor that match the real life character. She does a lot with this little script and casts a smashing shadow over the proceedings.

Mr. Gill is smooth and confident as Sherlock, but his part is a difficult one to draw. Everything comes too easy for this Sherlock and there is not much more Mr. Gill could have done to make this sleuth more sleuth-like.

Finally, Mr. Pendzich, who has long been one of my absolute favorites, draws a Wilde who captures all of the quirks of the real character. Ms. Forgette wisely uses many of the witticisms from the real Wilde, but stops short of exploring more of his clever observance of mankind and his surroundings.

Mr. Pendzich is an absolute marvel of the well-turned eye, the most effective pause and the physical stylings that fit so well into any comedy.

Having said all that, and realizing that the whole thing is less than the sum of its parts, it’s still an evening of theater that can happily pass a couple of hours away on a warm summer night.