1980s nostalgia hits a laughing-gas high with “Planet Claire,” the Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s disheveled and effervescent tribute to the shiny, happy pop group, the B-52’s.
Writer Tad Janes says he conceived the show during a road trip to South Carolina, when, trying to stay awake, he blasted the B-52’s on the CD player. Probably punch-drunk with fatigue, Mr. Janes was struck by the drama inherent in the group’s lyrics.
More fun than a VH-1 “Where Are They Now?” episode (astute audience members may detect ‘80s references to the rap group Run-DMC, Cyndi Lauper, and Toni Basil, of “Oh, Mickey” fame), “Planet Claire” hangs 12 hits by the B-52’s on a Necco-wafer-thin plot about a Goth waitress named Claire (Amy Easton), who winds up on planet Topaz after a car crash.
Leaving her fellow passengers, Annie (Gene Fouche) and Buzz (Zane Oberholzer) behind, Claire finds herself in benignly alien territory, where all the planet’s inhabitants sport the towering, day-glo bouffant hairdos and the wacky-tacky ‘60s and ‘70s togs made famous by the B-52’s.
It’s a fishnets and go-go boots, polyester leisure suit world on planet Topaz, where the natives express themselves in goofy dances, a la the time warp from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” to the songs “Cosmic Thing,” “Rock Lobster,” and “Quiche Lorraine.” Gaining a hefty dose of self-esteem — and the affection of the mullet-headed prince L-Rok (Andrew Lloyd Baughman) — on Topaz, Claire returns to Earth a punk princess with attitude.
The low-budget show is far from perfect. The sets are a cut above a high school production, and the set changes involve a lot of alarming banging around offstage. Bad miking drowned out a majority of the vocals in the first act, although the five-piece rock band charmingly re-creates the surf guitar and keyboards-dominated bounciness of the signature sound of the B-52’s.
The show has a lot of chatterbox exposition in the first act, and the dialogue tends to run to such immortal lines as “I’m not interested in lobsters, Rok.” However, the slap-happy exuberance of the cast — an energizing mix of ethnicities, ages, and body sizes — more than makes up for the modest production values. The cast deftly performs a medley of novelty dances, and their vocals, once the sound problem was fixed, were strong and affecting.
Mr. Oberholzer, in the dual roles of homosexual pal Buzz and the alien Zub, does an excellent rendition of B-52’s member Fred Schneider’s idiosyncratic shriek. Miss Easton exudes grrrl power as Claire, and Miss Fouche displays a killer voice as her sidekick Annie (and her Topaz alter ego Eena). Julie Herber as the malevolent Jo gives off scary/funny vibes, especially in her kung-fu style fight scenes.
The B-52’s evoke feelings of summer: riding in big old cars on hot summer nights, singing your lungs out to the radio with friends and dancing to the jukebox at tin-roofed shacks until your clothes droop with sweat.
“Planet Claire” reinforces those good feelings with a show as sunny as the group that inspired it.
WHAT: “Planet Claire” by Tad Janes, featuring the music of the B-52’s
WHERE: Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Through July 10.