CU-Boulder stages a Shakespearean space musical
The madcap jukebox musical “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” set in a rock ‘n’ roll Shakespearean spaceship, comes to the University of Colorado Boulder’s University Theatre this March. CU-Boulder Associate Professor Cecilia Pang directs the production, which promises nonstop laughs, infectious tunes and a generous nod to the Bard.
First seen in 1989 on London’s West End, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” places the plot and dialogue of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” in a futuristic space setting with performances of classic songs from the 1950s and 1960s. This particular production features flying, light saber fights and a shaking, stage-sized spaceship.
When he wrote the script, librettist Bob Carlton took his inspiration from campy, low-budget science fiction films from the 1950s and 1960s. So did CU-Boulder doctoral candidate Jenn Calvano, the show’s choreographer, when she started planning dance routines.
“I was watching a clip of ‘Batman’ from the 1960s [starring Adam West], and there’s a moment where he’s under some kind of spell and starts go-go dancing,” Calvano says. “So I’ve been focusing on the kind of dance that was popular when all these songs were written—1950s sock-hop swing, East Coast swing, a little bit of Lindy Hop—but with a lot of humor thrown in there.”
The performance showcases a cast of CU-Boulder students who take turns acting, singing, dancing and playing instruments. The onstage band members are also actors in the show, and almost all the lead actors get the opportunity to show off their instrumental chops.
“If we found out that, say, someone was proficient at guitar, we asked that person to play a guitar solo,” said the play’s music director, David Nehls. “It might not always fit with the character the person is playing, but I think that’s part of the fun.”
If it’s not entirely clear what “fits” into “Return to the Forbidden Planet” and what doesn’t, it’s because Carlton left many of the play’s elements open to interpretation. His nebulous instructions inspired Pang to get creative and add a few more fantastical elements to the production, including beat boxing, punk, puppet dancers and a gender swap.
Actor Melanie Iris Schultz says her favorite thing about “Return to the Forbidden Planet” is that “it’s so tongue in cheek that the tongue’s not even in the cheek anymore.”
She also has a list of about a hundred reasons why the musical is a must-see.
“This whole theater will become a spaceship that moves,” Schultz says. “People will fly. There’s fire. There are roller skates. There’s a giant octopus. There are screens everywhere projecting giant asteroids. And, seriously, how many times do you get to see ‘The Tempest’ in space?”