Review

Shakespeare as a sci-fi rock musical: 'Return to the Forbidden Planet' overflows with fun

Can a sci-fi-themed, classic rock musical stand measure to measure with Shakespeare? “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura seeks to boldly go where no outer space retelling of “The Tempest” has gone before, and it even has the rhyming pentameter to prove it.

Blasting off to the spirited live band’s pulsating, guitar-twangy strains of “Wipe Out,” this zero-gravitas parody is a rockin’ homage to the extraterrestrial tropes embodied in the 1956 classic movie “Forbidden Planet.” (The film was, in turn, loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s play.)

After a meteor storm diverts a rocket ship to planet D’Illyria, the crew encounters the exiled mad scientist Prospero (James O’Neil), whose mind-over-matter formula unleashes a green-tentacled monster from his own id. (That prompts him to croon, “I'm just a soul whose intentions are good — Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.”) 

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Creator Bob Carlton’s selection of more than 20 hormone-infused golden oldies from the 1950s and ’60s shrewdly amplifies the coming-of-age plotline involving Prospero’s blossoming daughter, Miranda (Kimberly Hessler). Quickly making up for the absence of men in her life by turning the heads of the entire crew with her entrance to “Good Vibrations,” Miranda and her suitors (Harley Jay and Caleb Horst) tunefully explore their emotional roller coasters in “A Teenager in Love,” “Young Girl,” “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her” and other hits.

The evening’s nimblest comic turns come from Jason Graae’s sentient roller-skating robot, Ariel, and Rebecca Ann Johnson as the ship’s independent-minded science officer, whose masterfully belted rendition of “Gloria” is a showstopper.

Director-choreographer Kirby Ward’s lively staging o’erflows with vigorous performances, colorful special effects and well-timed comedy, though it keeps a relatively safe lid on the show’s potentially more subversive rock musical undercurrents.

The faux-Shakespearean prologue delivered on video by guest narrator Fred Willard is a harbinger of many “Fakespeare” puns drawn from the Bard’s canon, including “What light through yonder airlock breaks?” “Two beeps or not two beeps” and a particularly inspired “beware the ids that march.”

The smart, supple literacy of these allusions is at odds with the inane and at times exposition-heavy plot contortions needed to thread the songs — one can usually appreciate one or the other, but rarely mind-meld both at once. The fun factor is consistent, regardless. Those lacking appreciation for early rock ’n’ roll or missing a high tolerance for camp need not apply, and yet I think this sci-fi romp as fair as any cheese belied with false compare.

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“Return to the Forbidden Planet”

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 13

Tickets: $44-$54

Information: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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