Milwaukee Opera Theatre pays homage to early 20th century pulp action heroes with the two-act musical Doc Danger and the Danger Squad. A group of super-heroines based on old pulp heroes square-off against a villain with the ability to warp reality in another action-based Jason Powell musical.
Pulp Action Anthology--The Musical!
Act One opens as a very charming Harper Navin plays a little girl reading an old action pulp fiction anthology magazine. Songs alternate as three different storylines are joined by a fourth in a nearly all-woman musical tribute to pulp action heroes. (On a personal aesthetic level, this is very appealing to me. Super-heroism always made more sense to me coming from a woman. Even growing-up reading Marvel comics as a kid in the ‘80s, my most reliably favorite hero ended up being Rachel Summers.) There’s a really nice episodic rhythm to the action as one scene follows the next.
An Avenging Pulp Justice League of Extraordinary Women
Under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, Powell’s transfer from pulp-era super heroes to operatic super-heroines is fairly dazzling.
Stephanie Staszak is Jesai of the Jaguars--a jungle girl inspired (as all jungle girls were) by Tarzan. Staszak has a strong nobility in the role. She squares-off against Ana Gonzalez as the suitably sinister Beetle Queen.
A bright-yellow-haired Carrie Gray plays space cowgirl Satellite Sally. She’s goes on adventures with Hannah Esch as Clare de Lune: her long-suffering sidekick who does all the dangerous work. In one of the most appealing songs of the show, the two “Cowgirls on the Moon” sing about Flash Gordon/Lone Ranger-style adventures. Gray manages a few sweet romantic moments with charismatic Sean A. Jackson as a composer who is being held captive by the arch-villain. Becky Cofta gets a few interesting moments as Clare and Sally’s nemesis, the lunar desperado Penny Dreadful. Like so many others in the ensemble, Cofta doesn’t get nearly enough time to explore an interesting pulp archetype transferred to the musical theatre stage.
Briana Rose Lipor plays the title character--a brilliant scientist and superhuman adventurer modeled after Doc Savage. Lipor is inspiring as the heroine. Doc Savage never appealed to me as a character, but with Lipor playing a charismatically campy musical theatre iteration...it actually makes a lot of sense aesthetically. Erich Welch plays Doc Danger’s nemesis Professor Z. He has sort of a towering Tim Curry-like presence onstage as he carries around a plush cat...the way you do when you’re an evil super-villain. Welch makes a tired, old stereotype feel fresh...aided as he is by a sharp, little bit of political satire written into the script by Powell.
Rae Elizabeth Pare rounds out the central heroic cast as The Lady In Black. She’s the silently mysterious heroic persona that had been pioneered by The Shadow and then popularly ripped-off nearly a decade later by Batman. Once again, she’s my personal favorite in a musical ensemble populated with a LOT of talent: Rae Elizabeth Pare is irresistibly stylish as she’s slyly smiling in the role of the dark detective who brings the team together to defeat the sinister Professor Z and his menacing android (played by Melissa Anderson.)
The Shift After Intermission
Act Two opens as Harper Navin plays the kid reading the pulp magazine returns to “real life” and runs into the same personalities twisted into a more contemporary office setting. (Melissa Anderson isn’t a robot anymore...she’s a mother...) So maybe she’s just imaginative but maybe there’s something far more sinister going on here...
It Needs More Room to Breathe
Doc Danger would be really, really satisfying as a trilogy. Or it would make for a very tightly-drawn duology. As a single two-act show...it’s pleasantly bewildering and a lot of light fun that only drags a little in Act Two.
It’s so cool to see women in a musical theatre adaptation of The Shadow and Tarzan and Doc Savage and Buck Rogers stories. Each one would be cool enough on its own, but here they’re all teaming-up, which is that much more enjoyable. It’s a big, sweeping crossover between sub-genres. Like any superhero crossover, though, there’s never enough time for any one character.
In a departure from the standard convention of the genre, the first act ends on a cliffhanger that isn’t directly picked-up after intermission. And though it’s really obvious what’s going on as the story shifts from the pulp era to the modern era, the second act drags as we are introduced to reiterations of characters we were already introduced to in Act One. It feels a bit repetitious to be introduced to them as other characters.
The overarching storyline between the pulp world and the world outside it is genuinely interesting, but the pacing feels wrong. Oddly enough, it wouldn’t feel like the Act Two was dragging if it was expended into a sequel. What happens after intermission feels more like a second episode and less like a second act. We really need more time between these sections of the mini-saga. One intermission isn’t enough.
A Doc Danger duology would expand things quite nicely. Each character could have her own signature musical genre (Jesai could be rock’n’ roll. Satellite Sally could be classic Roy Rogers-style singin’ cowboy. The Lady in Black’s musical presence could sound like a Danny Elfman musical and so on...) The story would have more time to explore both the concept of a heroic musical action pulp anthology genre before marching off into an exploration of what the modern world does to potentially heroic people. A trilogy would allow for a progression from fantasy to reality to the proper heroically balance between the two.
It’s a bit extravagant to think of a show like this as a trilogy...I mean...it’s pretty miraculous that a musical tribute to action pulp heroes of the early 20th century even exists...let alone that it would be able to spread out over three feature-length parts. Jason Powell and Milwaukee Opera Theatre have done an admirable job of bringing something like this to the stage. Pulpy super-heroism tends to inspire that kind of starry-eyed over-the-top imagination. So I think I can be forgiven for ending this one on the fantasy of spending more time at the small stage with Doc Danger and her friends.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Doc Danger and the Danger Squad runs through Aug. 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.