Friday, August 24, 2018

MOT presents "Doc Danger & the Danger Squad"

A madcap new musical & love song to pulp fiction 

We're told from the very beginning of Doc Danger & the Danger Squad that, in this universe, creativity rules and the hero always escapes. Spoiler alert? Not so much. And if so, who cares! Doc Danger isn't so much about its tightness of plot or genuinely shocking twists and turns. It's about having a rollicking good time inside the brain of composer and Milwaukeean Jason Powell.

Powell's claims to local fame include a number of musicals, an opera, a handful of folk songs, and the occasional comedy sketch. Doc Danger is his latest achievement, and his original pulp fiction musical comedy has found its rightful home under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik at the Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT).

Ponasik has a knack for bringing the quirky, camp, and colorful to life, and Doc Danger is no exception. The creative team has gathered top-notch new (to MOT anyway) talent, and the set, sound, and lighting design, though simple, is cleverly employed. A narrow escape from a thundering train, the menacing flash of the Beetle Queen's wrath, the methodical re-hingeing of an unhinged universe: These larger-than-life moments are shown through bursts of color, light, and sound. 

Okay, so about the Beetle Queen... Let's back track and talk plot. For starters, Doc Danger is very much a love letter to pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s. These stories were called "pulp" because of the cheap paper used for printing them, and they peaked in popularity during the Great Depression as a means of distracting folks from dire reality. The signatures of pulp: Extraordinary, fast-paced plots; thrilling, action-packed genres; broadly-drawn heroes and villains.

Sound like today's ubiquitous superhero movies? Ding ding ding! Doc Danger & and the Danger Squad is a sort of crossover of characters and genres, merging sci-fi, western, spy thriller, and jungle action into one mission to save the universe from evil. It's also chockfull of archetypes, both heroic and villainous. 

There's Doc Danger herself (Briana Rose Lipor), an ode to science, brain power, and ingenuity. Next up, a couple of cowpokes named Satellite Sally (Carrie Gray) and Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch) — the plucky, guns-blazing brute squad. Jesai of the Jaguars (Stephanie Staszak) reps the jungle princess contingent, while the Lady in Black (Rae Elizabeth ParĂ©) embodies a Batman-like detective with super-spy undertones. Last but not least, the Kid (Harper Navin) gloms onto Doc Danger as an underdog and unexpected hero.

What a bunch of badass female guardians of the universe! It's cool to learn that, while Powell's lineup is progressive even today, pulp fiction novels were especially forward-thinking in their heyday. Women could be heroes, homosexuals, brains & brawn, and find fulfillment sans romance. Doc Danger pits this wondrous world against an evil, alternate reality of banality, conformity, and unimaginative drudgery — in essence, our own reality.

Through the diabolic minds of the maniacal-laughing Professor Z (Eric Welch), the sultry and super-powered Beetle Queen (Ana Gonzalez), and the slightly-dim Penny Dreadful (Becky Cofta), this alternate reality takes hold. Our heroines turn into self-involved, male-worshipping, creativity-stifled shells who stab each other in the back rather than build each other up. The horror! If you're wondering whether or not our brave band of women can escape such evil clutches, see the spoiler alert up top.

What's so enjoyable about Doc Danger & the Danger Squad is how all this food-for-thought never outweighs the fun. Marvelous talent, snappy tunes (shout out to my personal favorite, "Cowgirls on the Moon"), and the satisfaction of pegging these familiar characters and plot points — that's the draw for pulp fiction fans and musical theater lovers alike. The extent to which you dissect the subtext, that's just an added bonus. 

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