Jason Powell’s comix opera
Milwaukee Opera Theatre, under artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik, is a little different. Gone are the days of low-budget classics. In with the new and, well, unusual. For example: Jason Powell’s Fortuna the Timebender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom.
Ponasik, actress and singer about town in addition to her MOT duties, met Powell on an industrial video shoot for Comfort Inn Suites.
“Jason was a customer and I was checking him in,” Ponasik recalled. “He had such immortal lines as, ‘This carpet feels like home.'”
Powell knew that Ponasik could sing — she’d been in La Boheme and Pirates of Penzance at the Skylight. The next thing she knew, she was cast in Powell’s Invader? I Hardly Know Her at the Alchemist Theater, with Powell and his comedy improv pals. She played secret agent Lucy Walks-on-Sky.
“I had never been in a production like that, where everyone is insanely funny 100% of the time,” she said, in a joint interview with Powell Tuesday evening. “I loved it.”
“I played piano as a kid, and I had one music theory class in college,” he said (Knox College, Galesburg, Ill., theater major). “The rest of it I gleaned from real musicians I knew. I wrote songs in college as a hobby, eventually enough to make a CD. People would listen to and say: Is this a soundtrack from a musical? So I quit my job and wrote Invader. I had maybe one page done when I mentioned it to Aaron Kopec at Alchemist. And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll do it here.’
Ponasik, 34, came back to Wisconsin after several years of free-lancing in New York. She took on Milwaukee Opera Theatre, an institution in search of an artistic mission, and has turned some heads. 26, with Ponasik, Nathan Wesselowski dancer Kelly Anderson, staged at Danceworks, was the surprise hit of the spring. That original piece told the story of a love triangle through the 26 Italian songs and arias in a anthology that every singer knows.
“We had a dark, meaty season last year,” Ponasik said. “I was on the lookout for something lighter.”
She took on Powell knowing, from Invader, of his working methods. He writes nothing down. Powell plays chords on a keyboard and sings the vocal parts and records it all on his computer. Singers learn their parts by ear. Music director Donna Kummer wrote out words and set chord names over them to handle the piano parts.
How are the singers taking to that?
“They’re doing great!” Ponasik exclaimed. “It didn’t stop anyone from taking a part. They didn’t bat an eyelash.”
“Yeah — until they had to do it,” Powell said. “Then they got pissy.”
That will do for these initial performances, which will be semi-staged, a step up from workshops. If MOT puts on a full production next season, Powell or some amanuensis will have to write out all the parts.
Powell wrote 18 discrete numbers for the show, connected by recitative (“I wanted it to be a real opera,” he said). Gilbert & Sullivan inspired him — the three Schoolgirls of Doom resemble the Three Little Maids from School in The Mikado, and there are patter songs. But other music in the show, he said, should bring Stephen Sondheim’s style to mind.
Ponasik originally had a children’s show in mind for this project, but sensed no spark of enthusiasm in her composer. Finally, she called him one night asked, Jason, what do you like?
“He didn’t pause for a second: ‘Comic books,'” Ponasik said.
“I wrote a blog about comic books, and at that moment I was staring at a stack of them,” Powell, 32, said. “I was doing an issue-by-issue analysis of Chris Claremont’s X-Men from 1974 to 1991.”
Well OK then.
The conceit of the opera is that it’s the first issue of a new comic book serial. It establishes Futura as the superheroine and The Headmaster as her archenemy, aided by the Schoolgirls of Doom.
“The Headmaster was a philosophy major who couldn’t get a job, and so turned to a life of crime,” Ponasik explained, helpfully.
“I knew we wanted a female superhero with a dorky male sidekick,” Powell said. “I immediately thought of Jon Stewart.”
He meant Jon Stewart the Milwaukee actor, not the one on Comedy Central. Turned out to be perfect type-casting. Stewart is a comic-book nut and owns hundreds of them. He still has the superhero costume his grandmother made for him at 10. She also made him a helmet. He’s wearing it in the show’s poster. And he will wear it in the show.
Fortuna the Timebender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28-30, at the Sunset Playhouse, 800 Elm Grove Road, in Elm Grove. Tickets are $12 and $15, $7.50 for students, at the Sunset box office, 262-782-4430, and as the Sunset website.
The Cast: Diane Lane, Julia Black, Jon Stewart, Nathan Wesselowski, Rana Roman, Courtney Jones and Katy Johnson.