From its home base at the far end of Navy Pier, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater routinely presents some of the best independent live theater in the city. In between innovative and crowd-pleasing productions of the Bard’s classics (a recent hippie-style As You Like It paired Shakespeare with Beatles music to surprisingly great effect), they’re taking bold chances on productions that might not always line up with the company’s stodgy reputation. Pre-pandemic, they previewed SIX The Musical before it went on to Broadway (and Tony) success out east. This fall, they’ll preview a new musical adapted from Nicholas Sparks’ novel The Notebook, which has the potential to be something quite…well, it is sure to be something, one way or another.
In their latest “Wait, where is that show playing?” moment, Chicago Shakes presents another new musical, this time based on a 1950s B movie about alien body snatchers and the big-city astronomer in small-town Arizona who has to convince the town not only that the extra terrestrials are among them, but that they didn’t come to harm the humans. It Came From Outer Space is based on the 1953 movie of the same name, co-written by Ray Bradbury; this version was created by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blaire, co-writers of the book and responsible for the music and lyrics, respectively. Directed by Laura Braza, this campy, kooky good time is on stage in the upstairs studio theater at Chicago Shakes, a small space with just about 100 seats and a stage no bigger than the average living room. But the crafty production team and talented ensemble cast (just six actors comprise the entire case of humans and aliens) turn the space into a small desert town with a big open sky where an alien crash-lands their UFO and sets about taking over the locals in an effort to…well, to say more would spoil the fun.
Christopher Kale Jones is John Putnam, a buttoned-up but well-meaning scientist who recently relocated to Sand Rock, Arizona, after being made a laughingstock in the last small town he stopped in, where he also said he saw aliens. Out one night looking at the stars with love interest and local school teacher Ellen Fields (Jaye Ladymore), a meteor crash lands not far from where they are and the two race back to town to tell others about what they saw. Meanwhile, a couple of utility repair linemen (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Alex Goodrich) are out fixing a power line when one comes face to face with the creatures from another planet; one zap and he’s no longer himself, having been taken over by one of the aliens who now has to figure out how to behave like a human being. Before long, more and more of the townspeople are victims of the body-snatching. Butler-Duplessis, Goodrich and the other two ensemble members, Ann Delaney and Sharriese Y. Hamilton, take on multiple roles throughout the show, a creative way to stretch their talents and add some unexpected humor into an already hilarious show.
Running just 90 minutes with no intermission, It Came from Outer Space moves along at a healthy clip, with no one scene or musical number overstaying its welcome. The songs are punchy and brief, a series of up-tempo, American mid-century rock tunes that get catchier as the show progresses; at one point, Ellen is frustrated that she can’t get more out of John, who seems withholding and distant. The resulting “I Can’t Figure Out Men” is a total bop (as I think the kids are saying?), smart and cheeky lyrics performed with as much of an eye-roll as a wink. The show is staged a number of clever ways, from ensemble members often doing much of the scene changes with a silly self-awareness that we can see them and they can see us to costume changes that move so quickly they aren’t always finished by the time the actor needs to get back on stage (as in the case of one of Butler-Duplessis’s quick changes on the night I attended, which he and Goodrich handled with aplomb).
With a bawdy and B sense of humor, silly gags throughout and wit in abundance, It Came from Outer Space has an endearing irreverence that will elicit a laugh out of even the most stuffy theater-goers (for me, I broke during one of Butler-Duplessis’s impeccable deliveries of a rather unexpected punchline). There’s a sort of Avenue Q vibe about the proceedings, a top-notch show presented by talented artists that’s a bit of a well-kept secret, and we like it that way. On a bigger stage, in a bigger house, the fun and frivolity of It Came from Outer Space would be lost entirely, but here (and hopefully in some off-Broadway stage in the months to come), the show is something as entertaining as it is surprisingly sweet. It’s a trek to get to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater from pretty much anywhere in the city, but shows like It Came from Outer Space continue to solidify the company’s reputation for productions that are worth the commute.
It Came from Outer Space has been extended through July 31 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Tickets are $50-$90 and available online.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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