SHELF LIFE- Motley crew: Blackfriars puts on a happy show

Language has its limits. Even with the power and reach of Shakespeare's metaphors, it would be hard to describe the connections between a sci-fi film, the Beach Boys, and The Tempest.

But if there's one genre that might be hospitable to such a creative conglomeration, it would be the musical. Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet, a campy, theatrical "goulash" that finds in certain rock music classics the expression of Elizabethan dramatic sentiment, is one salient example. The American Shakespeare Center's traveling troupe at Blackfriars Theater in Staunton is now staging the musical.

Combining text from 15 of Shakespeare's plays and two of his sonnets, Return to the Forbidden Planet is multiform and multiflavored, drawing its characters and plot intrigue from The Tempest, its emotional appeal from mid-century popular tunes like Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," and its stylistic flair from Star Trek. In a word, unconventional.

Describing his first encounter with the script, director Jim Warren admits he had some reservations: "I thought 'This is clever– but I just don't know,'" he says. "There's nothing out there like it."

But he saw the project as a welcome challenge, and he speaks highly of the troupe's collective musical talent. The eight players not only dramatize– but must simultaneously perform– the play's musical themes, a feat made all the more impressive considering that this is the company's first musical in its 18-year history.

Such enterprising spirit is characteristic of theater, a venue where classical works often enjoy a modern artistic and commercial revival. After all, three of the "big four" musical productions (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables) are based on works by T.S. Eliot, Gaston Leroux, and Victor Hugo, respectively.

But the idea of Shakespearean drama recast in contemporary song should not seem especially daring considering the critical and commercial success of such Broadway stalwarts as Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.

The audience's ecstatic response to Return to the Forbidden Planet Saturday, April 15 confirms the public's delight in modern musical adaptations. The play provides a welcome comedic balance to the company's other spring offerings: Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III.

"This is the dessert," says cast member Daniel Carlton, contrasting the musical's cheer to Richard III's complexity and austerity and Much Ado's more high-minded comedy. The production is too bizarre and too engaging, however, to be classified as comedy or to have been incorporated into the seasonal fare simply for comic relief.

Based loosely on the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, Return to the Forbidden Planet takes place in the future on board a spaceship under the command of Captain Tempest. The ship is on a routine survey mission when it's drawn mysteriously to the Planet D'Illyria, where the mad scientist Prospero and his daughter Miranda are marooned. The dynamic aboard the ship changes as the crew must accommodate the skeletons from Prospero's past, and as the flux of human passions threatens to spoil the crew's mission.

Although ostensibly less well known and less respected than Cats or Les Mis, the production still leaves a strong impression­ if in an ironic, half serious, way.

To the charge that the play is mere hipster entertainment, marring the dignity of the classical literature by appealing to pop-culture products and themes, Carlton is adamant in his defense: "This is not hip; it's happy.

"Besides, the play is still a period piece," he says, referring to the strong effect of mid-century American music on the largely elderly audience.

The appeal of Return to the Forbidden Planet, then, is in its deliberate attempt to relocate joy in the folds of dull and weighty cultural history, by weaving a novel, musical harmony out of a mixture of older, more exhausted art forms. There's implied aesthetic commentary here: where language fails to engage or inspire an audience, the more visceral experience of music can pick up the slack.