A fun comic book in the form of an opera

By - Oct 29th, 2010 06:56 pm

Dorky sidekick Jon Stewart, helmeted.

A modern opera about superheroes fighting to save the day sounds campy. Seldom, if ever, has anyone successfully combined the two much-loved (and much-loathed) arts of opera and comic-book fandom. Jason Powell managed it in his Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom, which the Milwaukee Opera Theatre opened Friday.

MOT’s first commissioned piece blends literary device, vocal skill, utter silliness, Shakespearean wordplay coupled and accessible melody. It’s a delightful and fitting homage to superhero culture as it regains acceptance as worthy entertainment.

The current run is of staged readings, impressive considering the entire cast did not perform all together all the way through until Friday night. Diane Lane, our virtuous Narrator, and pianist Donna Kummer carried the show along swiftly. Like the first panels of a newly-released comic book, Lane deftly wove the origin story of Fortuna (Julia Black), Anyville’s masked heroine, who busies herself by vanquishing local evildoers.

The protagonist, though, is an average Joe named Joe, played by Jonathan Stewart. This self-professed mild-mannered longs to become a superhero and expresses this longing in a singing daydream. He confesses this desire to his pragmatic paramour, Elizabeth Mahoney, a type-a museum administrator. Elizabeth mulls over the notion of shattering her true love’s dream. Instead, she sings of her unconditional support. Soon, Fortuna asks Joe to be her sidekick.

As Joe begins his superhero training, the story’s apoplectic antagonist, The Headmaster, rides into the Anyville train depot. The Headmaster’s back-story, revealed in the song Practitioner of Villiany, involves his failed attempt at re-entering society by earning a degree in philosophy. Nathan Wesselowski brings The Headmaster to cartoonish life in exaggerated comedic gestures and a stodgy suit.

To carry out his diabolical plans to destroy Fortuna and fill Anyville’s crime vacuum, the Headmaster employs his trio of teacher’s pets, the Schoolgirls of Doom– prodigious pupils along the lines of Charlie’s Angels blended with evil Hogwarts students. These sassy schoolgirls — Katy Johnson, Lisa Buchmeier and Rana Roman — nearly steal the show with racy numbers in siren-like harmony. Naturally, they discover that key to Fortuna’s undoing lies in the delivery of a perfect Neapolitan major seventh chord. (If you’re curious about what that means, go see the show. You’ll understand.)

The plot thickens when the schoolgirls kidnap Elizabeth, hoping to lure Joe and Fortuna to their doom. But Elizabeth captivates The Headmaster, who sings his adoration in song. A Schoolgirl overhears, and the jealous trio conspires to eliminate Elizabeth. Joe and Fortuna arrive to do battle and save Elizabeth.

The beauty here lies in simplicity. The show is as easy to follow as a comic book. Emphatic music and a talented cast deliver an earful of polysyllabic puns while illustrating the tale with minimal props and a whole lot of spirit. The music was lively, and the tempo and pitch matching the changing moods. Some of the best parts of the show were when the seven-member ensemble joined forces to create harmony rich with melody, counter-melody, and vocal dynamic and stylistic differences. The cast was dead-on, each member of it got a star turn.

From beginning to end, the cast of Fortuna delivers laughs suited for all ages. Catch Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom at the Sunset Playhouse Studio Theatre October 28-30th at 7:30.

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