In the 1953 movie “It Came From Outer Space” — a groundbreaking, 3D, science fiction attraction — an amateur astronomer and his schoolteacher girlfriend run into aliens in Arizona. The extraterrestrial visitors, unfortunate enough to have a single bulging eye and a resemblance to a giant jellyfish, have a novel way of making themselves known: they take over the bodies of the local townspeople. They’re shape-shifters, a la “True Blood.”
That film, campy by today’s standards, has been turned into a small-sized comic musical by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (“Murder for Two”) and has its world premiere Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Jokes fly from the get-go and much fun is had at the expense of Cold War mores, 3D thrills and all of the conventions of the sci-fi genre. “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” whose Brad and Janet owe something to the proto-squares John (Christopher Kale Jones) and Ellen (Jaye Ladymore), will come to mind, although this is a squeaky clean story, not a transgressive affair filled with sexual tension. Not here in Sand Rock, Arizona. Not on Navy Pier, for that matter.
I had a good holiday weekend laugh at the show, as did most of Thursday’s excited audience. Along with some droll and quite tuneful ditties to enjoy, to comic songs at Second City, memorable gags include townsfolk not knowing where the aliens’ faces are positioned and (although you had to be there, I suspect) and Ellen saying she had to take a step back from her relationship with John, only to take an actual step back. There’s also a very droll ode to the overlooked virtues of “quiet men,” which has the line “let’s give ’em a real showy finish,” only quietly. The cast is filled with skilled comic performers — the likes of Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Ann Delaney, Sharriese Y. Hamilton — and they switch back and forth between the Earthbound prisoners of the 1950s and the benign visitors from outer space who just want everyone to get along.
The main things still to work on here, though, are the issues that arise when you have two levels of parody. Even before any aliens arrive, the characters come off as joke versions of the stars of the movie, who actually played their roles in total sincerity. So you’ve got a parody mindset going there and then the alien arrival piles another layer on the comedic cake.
In fact, shows like this are always funnier when they are played in totally sincere and truthful fashion; we have to at least be initially grounded in some kind of reality. This musical would be much funnier if the characters were more credible and the performances more honest and less of a style.
And let’s not forget Ray Bradbury, no less, wrote the movie’s screenplay, so there is a humanistic message of tolerance underpinning the whole shebang. Kinosian and Blair make reference to that in the excellent final number of the night, “Focus on That,” but I’d argue the show needs to get some kind of emotional content going far earlier than that. (Director Laura Braza’s production needs a “Somewhere That’s Green” moment you can really believe.) Part of the problem there is that Ellen and John don’t show a lot of mutual chemistry; they appear closed off from each other, so the romantic plot has no tension nor much at stake and you don’t pull for them in any way. The aliens need something heavy to disrupt with their gelatinous selves.
So as a mechanism for delivering zany puns, cracks and jokes, the show’s quite the blast. You’ll be impressed with the level of comedic imagination and the truly cool design from Scott Davis, replete as it is with lots of Easter eggs from the movie and even a theatrical version of 3D (no glasses required).
I think much of the musical material is already there, minus a couple of songs with heart. What’s badly needed from the director and cast is a really good dose of onstage truth, both of this world and from galaxies neither Elon Musk nor Jeff Bezos could imagine.
Although Bradbury, the true visionary, sure could.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “It Came From Outer Space” (3 stars)
When: Through July 24
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $50-$60 at 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com