When I sat down in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, I was ready to enjoy a bright, fluffy, and un-challenging musical adventure; a fun escape from the week’s work. Remarkably, though Jason Powell’s Doc Danger and the Danger Squad (directed by Jill Anna Ponasik) delivers all the delight and escapism one could want, I was floored by a brilliant plot that managed to pull me ever-so-slightly closer toward the cult of superhero-worship that colors our contemporary pop culture.
[tl;dr – Doc Danger and the Danger Squad is a fun and brilliantly plotted musical, especially for the un-spoiled. The first act gives us superhero action and pleasant enough songs, while the second act provides both artistic challenges and superior music, particularly Rae Elizabeth Pare’s “Zero Stars” and “One Person’s Trash.” Strong singers abound; Ana Gonzalez and especially Eric Welch stand out for physical commitment and clear characterization. You can read my other reviews here.]
I have a lot to say about this show, so I want to preamble that by reiterating what an excellent experience it was. I had fun and was challenged, and it was well performed. I’ve got a lot of critiques, but even Hamlet was riddled with confusing imperfections. Doc Danger and the Danger Squad presents something new, it takes chances, and that is always worth seeing. The fact that the show itself was overall well executed is just icing on the proverbial.
Spending most of my time in Chicago’s storefront theater scene, I was a little surprised to see such a large space referred to as an intimate studio. Still, Lisa Schlenker’s simple though expert set design accented the story beautifully without distracting, doing much to show that a large-ish company can still serve the story without floundering in needless extravagance (and what smaller companies could do if only they could get their hands on some funding). Schlenker’s backdrop illustration is thematically evocative, and frequently serves as a beautiful frame to highlight the action.
Molly Mason’s costumes were a little hit-or-miss: though functional, good-looking, and polished, most of them lacked the flash one might expect of superheroes. This was especially true of Doc Danger herself: her field-scientist-slash-adventurer outfit was monochromatic and bland, especially when compared to supporting superheroes Jesai of the Jaguars and Satellite Sally, where archetypes were more clearly utilized, and the pulp comic genre more overt. Eric Welch’s beautiful wigs did succeed in drawing focus to the performers (especially Ana Gonzalez’ Beetle Queen), adding palpable highlights to many of the cast.
Anti-Shadows lighting was brilliant and dynamic, highlighting action sequences often enough without turning the play into a light show. Jason Fassl, as usual, demonstrated powerful resources matched with measured reserve.
The Thing Itself (the Plot, and some quick character references)
The first act is (intentionally) predictable, but enjoyable all the same. A Kid (played by a committed Harper Navin) introduces us to the cast of superheroes: Doc Danger (Briana Rose Lipor), a super scientist who, through her own agency, has given herself super-strength and super-speed; Jesai of the Jaguars (Stephanie Staszak), protector of the jungle; Satellite Sally (Carrie Gray), a space cowgirl who likes to be in charge; Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch), Sally’s put-upon sidekick; and the Lady in Black (Rae Elizabeth Pare), a mysterious agent who unites the team under Danger’s banner.
There is an interesting dynamic in the performance’s quality, and that dynamic hinges on the superheroes’ relationships to their respective villains: Jesai of the Jaguars fights the Beetle Queen (Ana Gonzalez), Satellite Sally and Clare de Lune team up against Penny Dreadful (Becky Cofta), and Doc Danger herself squares off against arch-villain Professor Z (Eric Welch). More on this dynamic later.
The plot is simple and easy to follow (as it should be in a superhero musical): a McGuffin is stolen, a composer is kidnapped. Professor Z unites the baddies against the goodies, and the first act ends with the superheroes at their nadir, just before the evil plot is about to reach fruition.
Without giving too much away: The second act begins in the real world, where the Kid spends some time with her family (and her mother’s coworkers), all played by singers from the first act: Melissa Anderson, appearing primarily as an evil hench-robot before (with committed physicality and hilarious vocal timing), now plays the Kid’s mother. Lipor’s Doc Danger is now the Kid’s Aunt Dawn, and Pare’s Lady in Black is now her sister, Libby. The songs in Act Two are more varied and interesting, with valid points and excellent juxtapositions to be made. Yet, while I was enjoying this artistically superior story with more grounded and compelling characters, I often found myself thinking of the as-yet-unresolved conflict of Act One. And the new, “dull” reality of Act Two just kept going, making me yearn for action even as I enjoyed the greater artistry. When we at last return to the super-world, the experience had been exponentially improved by the tantalization and depth provided in the first half of Act Two. This structure was brilliantly new, and it alone justifies Doc Danger’s place in the musical pantheon.
Talented singers abound in Doc Danger (unsurprisingly, given this is a Milwaukee Opera Theatre production), but special mention goes to Ana Gonzalez and especially Eric Welch as the villainous Beetle Queen and Professor Z. Both Gonzalez and Welch provide excellent characterization and commitment, while Welch brings clear intention and professional levels of physical awareness to the role. Every singer is at least satisfactory (usually superior), but one cannot help feeling that some potential was missed with some of the lead actors’ characters. Doc Danger (Briana Rose Lipor) and Jesai of the Jaguars (Stephanie Staszak) in particular seem to lack unique characterization, while Satellite Sally (Carrie Gray) and her sidekick Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch) stand out from the start. This is not to necessarily say that any actor is better or worse than another. Rather, for Gray and Esch, much of the work has already been done: the script gives them a pre-established relationship that develops over the course of the show, while Danger and Jesai exist independently of anyone and display few wants outside of a general desire to stop the baddies. Likewise, although all the heroes have archetypes from which they can draw, “space cowgirl” carries clear connotations with which an actor can work, while our other three heroes require a little bit more digging.
Lipor confirms this in Act 2, where she plays the Kid’s aunt, Dawn: cartoonishly in love with an offstage beau, she sings a vibrant and physically informed ballad, featuring bold and (necessarily) broad characterizations. The problem seems to arise from Doc Danger herself: we know that she is smart and has super strength and speed, and we know that she wants to stop Professor Z, but that’s about it, while Lipor’s Dawn in Act 2 has clear desires and personality traits. Such traits could potentially be found in Doc Danger and Jesai of the Jaguars as well, either through rewrites or further exploration of the characters in rehearsal.
This issue is especially well displayed by Rae Elizabeth Pare’s Lady in Black, our fifth superhero. The Lady in Black stands out a little by virtue of the plot, and the role is well performed, but mostly we see another focused and no-nonsense hero with few other characteristics. In Act 2, meanwhile, Pare presents Libby, the Kid’s sister, with two of the best (and best performed) songs of the show: “Zero Stars” and “One Person’s Trash.” Libby is someone with opinions, unique ideas, and clear wants. The fact that Lipor’s Dawn and Pare’s Libby can be so clearly defined and vibrantly portrayed despite their minor impact on the main plot shows that the superheroes can be further developed (be it by writer, actor, and/or director) for more powerful and distinct performances.
It is here that an interesting dynamic emerges. While Danger and Jesai remain relatively indistinct, their arch enemies Professor Z and Beetle Queen were highlights in the show. Conversely: the third villain, Penny Dreadful, is overshadowed by her adversaries. While I do feel that Becky Cofta’s Penny was not quite as committed as Welch’s Professor or Gonzalez’s Queen (though she does bring clear physicality and characterization to the role), it is understandably challenging for a third cowgirl to outshine the previous two, who come equipped with unique wants and relationships.
In this regard, it is a little difficult to sense the hand of director Jill Anna Ponasik in this production: any unique depths that might have been mined are relatively unexplored. Yet again, however, it must be said that Doc Danger‘s staging is, at the very worst, professionally and precisely done, creating an overall enjoyable experience that in no way hampers the show’s message. More on this shortly.
Also worth mentioning is our unsung non-hero, Robert Von Hesslington (Sean A. Jackson), the kidnapped composer. Jackson is immediately charming and adorable throughout, and provides an always-needed example of a man who does not solve problems with violence. I think fiction in general, and fantasy especially, could use more characters that do not celebrate violence as virtue, but expecting superhero fiction to provide this is perhaps a bridge too far (outside of Steven Universe). The fact that Robert is a kidnapped composer, rather than the usual scientist, is also a nice nod to the value of the arts.
Because of the plot, the music of Doc Danger is a bit of a conundrum. Act 1’s songs are easily outshone by Act 2’s, but the twist of the story may well necessitate this. I enjoyed Act 1’s “History is Written by the Winners,” an all-villain piece with some beautifully Brechtian potential, but Act 1’s standout is undoubtedly “Cowgirls on the Moon,” our intro to Satellite Sally and Clare de Lune. Again, character dynamics really make the songs pop. Yet it may well be that Act 1’s ‘inferiority’ to Act 2 is a necessity of the show’s overall success. I’m reminded of The Hypocrites’ outstanding production of Threepenny Opera, where Kurt Ehrmann’s Mister Peachum gave a frustratingly impersonal performance for fully two thirds of the play, specifically so his speech about the disenfranchised poor would hit us like a truck near the show’s conclusion. Laurence Olivier also comes to mind, who made the deliberate choice to play MacBeth as quiet and unexciting in the first two acts of the play, both in order to highlight the power of Vivien Leigh’s Lady MacBeth, and so the title character would shine all the more brightly toward the show’s climax.
Whether incidental or intentional, I think this is a valid and perhaps even ideal choice to make with Doc Danger. Superheroes are in right now, and that alone will excite audiences and keep them around for Act 2, which is what this show is really about. Perhaps Danger and Jesai can be given a pre-established relationship that develops during the show; that, or the Kid could become a more integral part of Doc Danger’s arc (which immediately reminds me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen); it may even be that we could stand to lose one of the main characters; but any failings in Act 1 won’t keep anyone from enjoying Act 2, and Act 2 makes any early failings well worthwhile. And while some of the performances could perhaps have used more depth (and, I hasten to remind myself, this is a musical about superheroes after all), they were always sufficient to their primary purposes: to entertain, and to sing the praises of the arts, in all their beautifully wide spectrum.
It has been said before that works of genius manage to balance the predictable with the revolutionary: the safe with the risky. Powell’s Doc Danger and the Danger Squad finds that balance between artistic risk and superhero safety. It is a well staged work of genius that I hope will continue to evolve both in Milwaukee and in the larger venue it deserves.