Far too long ago, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and writer/performer Jason Powell developed a clever comic book spoof/tribute operetta Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom. The sharp, little comedy makes its return to the stage in a quietly breathtaking production this month courtesy of Milwaukee Metro Voices. Samantha Sostarich radiantly returns as the time-bending operatic superhero in a production now being staged at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre downtown. I’d seen the Milwaukee Opera Theatre production years ago at the Alchemist Theatre. It is a pleasure to see the show return from the shadows to valiantly fight evil once more this summer.
Pop-Adjacent: Just Beyond the Splash Page of Mega-Popularity
It’s interesting to note how close Fortuna is to those genres that have reached the apex of mega-popularity in the modern world.
Broadway-style musicals are some of the biggest money-makers in live theatre. They rake-in tons of cash both on Broadway and from unsuspecting audiences all over the country in big, overstuffed touring productions. Fortuna isn’t a Broadway-style musical, though. It’s an operetta. Stylistically, Fortuna has a lot more in common with Gilbert & Sullivan than Sondheim, Menken or Andrew Lloyd Weber. Operettas like Fortuna may have been incredibly huge in an earlier time, but they have become something of a quaint throwback in the modern era.
Nowadays, superhero stories are some of the most popular reasons people go into large, darkened rooms all over the world. Just earlier this week Marvel’s latest Avengers movie recently broke over $2 billion at the box office and is well on its way to becoming the third highest-grossing film of all time worldwide (not adjusted for inflation.) Fortuna isn’t inspired by the contemporary superhero, though. Modern superheroes are equally focussed on themselves, their own problems AND saving the world. With the dazzlingly confident and altruistic Fortuna, we don’t get a whole lot of doubt or moody introspection. The beautifully beaming Samantha Sostarich poses triumphantly nearly every time she’s onstage. Never any doubts. Never any uncertainties. She’s a swoon-worthy paragon of superhero grace from an earlier era. She’s a throwback to a Golden Age Superman or the original Captain Marvel by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck.
Fortuna is musical theatre, but not the kind modern audiences are so in love with. It’s also a superhero story, but it’s not the kind that modern audiences funnel billions of dollars into multiplexes to watch. It’s a classy retro hybrid show that fuses the mega-pop precursors that are just beyond the splash page of contemporary mega-popularity.
Contemporary Aesthetics Nonetheless
Seeing the show a second time around, it’s interesting to pick apart what Powell is doing with Fortuna. Early-on in the story, we have the flash of those classic 1940s comic book superhero adventures. Fortuna cleans-up and completely abolishes crime in the cozy metropolis of Anyville, U.S.A. She stops a mugging, rescues a cat from a tree, stops a terrorist in a tank (offstage, of course. Let’s not get carried away with the budget. This isn’t Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or anything like that.)
After the first couple of songs, the Golden Age is kind of over, though...turn the page and there’s Joe. He’s a guy who has always wanted to be a superhero, but he’s plagued by doubts. (In other words...he IS the Silver Age.) Moved by overhearing Joe’s dream as sung to his girlfriend, Fortuna decides to take Joe under her wing and train him to be a superhero. Jonathan Stewart is sweetly chivalrous as Joe--a guy who we first meet wistfully reading the paper in a (somewhat symbolically) faded classic Justice League throwback t-shirt. Melissa Kelly Cardamone is irresistibly human as Joe’s girlfriend Elizabeth, who works in a museum. Cardamone is brilliant in this kind of role for this kind of intimate space. She’s got a beautiful voice for big, sweeping operatic emotion paired with a very deft touch at comparatively subtle characterization that smartly balance out her performance.
Present throughout the show, the self-referential humor and casual breaking of the fourth wall reach a particularly charming crescendo in very modern comedic style as Joe and Elizabeth try to reach common ground in their relationship.
A more contemporary style illuminates the story as Elizabeth worries that Joe is getting too lost in his superhero studies with Fortuna. Powell allows Fortuna a Professor X-like ability to locate others with super-powers. (Look closely and you'll see that there’s a lot around the edges of the plot that feels Marvel mutant-inspired. That's no coincidence. A couple years back, Powell wrote a book about writer Chris Claremont’s historic run on the Uncanny X-Men.)
It’s not necessary to be a big fan of the genre to love the show, but there are quite a few little easter-egg style references in at least one song. Not long before intermission in, “Superhuman,” Fortuna is telling Joe what powers he might acquire through training. She glides through deft lyrics which, if I’m not mistaken, make reference to comic book characters as diversely obscure as Tony Stark, Carol Danvers and...was that Gorilla Grodd, too? (Weird.)
The Villain and His Henchwomen
Having established things between Fortuna, Joe and Elizabeth, Powell shifts focus to the antagonist: a toweringly villainous Nathan Wesselowski as The Headmaster. Wesselowski cuts a bombastic figure as a comically sinister academic. He promptly goes into his backstory in a very sharp and entertainingly-executed song, “Practitioner of Villainy.” It’s one of my favorites: a song that feels rather pleasantly like "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
(It’s weird what you see a second time. This time around, the Headmaster’s origin reminded me of William Moulton Marston’s Golden Age Dr. Psycho...which casts the rest of the show in an interesting light. With its Golden Age female hero cast against a world of more contemporary and distinctly feminist concerns, Powell’s story here has much in common with William Moulton Marston’s early 1940s work for the company that was destined to become DC Comics.)
Part of the feminism in Powell’s story features three very liberated...uh...schoolgirl henchwomen: Mandy, Candy and Sandy. At first, three girls in plaid pleated skirts working for a villain known as The Headmaster might seem a trifle...misogynistic (at best.) Powell neutralizes this, though. The three of them (who are three distinctly different personalities) do a song near the end of the show that really casts a spotlight on the fact that the squad has had a relatively equal partnership with their “leader” the whole time. Lisa Morris strikes a balance between cuteness and villainy as Candy “the cute one.” Anna Van Nuland manages to seem commanding even while appearing occasionally submissive as Mandy “the mature one.” Dana Vetter wields the kind of confident poise that can casually spout a mouthful of highly technical sci-fi jargon as Sandy, “the smart one.”
The three Schoolgirls of Doom round-out a largely female ensemble that’s led by a very commanding Diane Lane as Narrator. It’s a really tightly-woven package. A retro neo-operetta and a Golden Age hero are cast in a contemporary spoof comedy that still manages to have enough heart to reach out to people not particularly enthusiastic about the genres in question. Director James Zager does an excellent job of juggling it all, which is pretty heroic in its own way. There's a lot going on here. Honestly there's no reason why this show should work as any kind of a cohesive experience. That it does (and does so quite well) says a lot about what Powell and Zager have managed here.
Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom is such a bizarrely idiosyncratic hybrid of a show. It almost seems too weird to possibly exist...let alone in a little studio space across the street and down the block from the central public library downtown. Do yourself a favor. Go convince yourself this thing really exists by seeing this one-of-a-kind show before it bounds off the stage one more time.
Milwaukee Metro Voices’ production of Fortuna The Time Bender Vs. The School Girls Of Doom runs through June 24 at the Tenth Street Theatre at 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Metro Voices online.