Here’s a trivia question for all you musical theater buffs out there. Name a Broadway musical (within the last quarter century) nominated for six Tony awards including Best Musical—that absolutely no one has heard of.

Give up? Of course you do, because even you have probably never heard of Starmites, the 1989 Best Musical nominee which told the tale of a shy teen geek so bored with her humdrum life and so obsessed with her comic book collection that she escapes into a fantasy world called Inner Space, a land guarded by a feisty band of cute teen boys known as “Starmites.”

Starmites (The Musical), which ran on Broadway less than 100 performances (including previews), probably wouldn’t have gotten its nominations had there been stronger competition, but the only other nominated shows were a pair of revues—Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Black And Blue. That’s right. There was no fourth nominee in 1989 (and not surprisingly no Best Book category either).

Starmites wasn’t a total loss however. It helped launch the careers of Liz Larsen, Gabriel Barre, Brian Lane Green, and Sharon McNight, became a favorite high school musical, and in a possibly unprecedented occurrence, spawned an original cast album recorded and released a full ten years after its Broadway run.

Now, twenty-one years after those 95 Broadway performances, Starmites is back in a thoroughly delightful, engagingly performed, and imaginatively directed production at Santa Monica’s Miles Playhouse.

The mastermind behind this Starmites revival is Steve Edlund, the gifted young director-choreographer-set designer of (StageSceneLA Best Of The Year) productions of Sunday In The Park With George and The Wild Party. Still less than a year out of SC, Edlund once again demonstrates his Broadway-bound talents in a production likely to captivate musical theater lovers from eight to eighty. It also happens to feature the most exciting use of puppets since Avenue Q, though in far more family-friendly form.

The nerdette whose comic book-inspired imagination sends her off into Inner Space is named Eleanor (Natalie Storrs) and her nemesis on Earth is none other than her mother (Jen Reiter), who has decided that today is the day stay-at-home daughter must get rid of her comic books and start living in the real world. Instead, Eleanor suddenly finds herself visited by Space Punk (Donald Webber, Jr.) and the Starmites—Dazzle Razzledorf (Jonah Priour), Herbie Harrison (Michael Joyce), and Ack Ack Ackerman (Thomas Krottinger), a threesome talented and cute enough to be a Boy Band, especially when executing the choreographed moves Edlund has created for them.

Accompanying Eleanor and her quartet of male attendants is Starmite lizard mascot Trinkulus, appearing in cuddly puppet form and voiced and manipulated by Matthew McFarland (with the occasional assistance of Jessica Perlman). Just as in Avenue Q, puppet and puppeteer share the character they are portraying (and audience attention), with McFarland’s hair died green and purple to match Trinkulus’s plush reptilian head.

Eleanor and the Starmites trek off into Shriekwood Forest in search of “The Cruelty,” a powerful musical instrument which they must find before it falls into the hands of the evil Shak Graa. Before long, the Starmites have been captured by a quartet of winged women known as the Banshees—Maligna (Marisa Esposito), Shotzi (Riana Nelson), Canibelle (Perlman), and Balbraka (Raquel Sandler), the four actresses manipulating and voicing four of the kookiest puppets this side of Sesame Street.

Finally there is Diva (Reiter again), the appropriately named Queen Of The Banshees, whose latest mission is to marry off her virtually unmarriagable (and equally aptly named) daughter Bizarbara (Storrs, nearly hidden under a deliciously god-awful purple-and-black mane), a girl whose nerdishness makes Eleanor seem positively hip by comparison. Ironically, Bizaraba longs for Eleanor’s monotonous existence and boring apple pie mom every bit as much as Eleanor wishes for a more exciting life. When both Eleanor and Bizabara fall head over heels for Space Punk (but he only for one of them), the stage is set for some hypnotic motherly interference.

Perhaps in another time and place, Starmites’ journey from off-Broadway to Broadway might have been as successful as the equally offbeat Urinetown’s was a decade an a half later. Perhaps, had the original production made Edlund’s inspired decision to have five characters played by both humans and puppets, Starmites’ success might have been a bit closer to Avenue Q’s.

In a case of better late than never, L.A. audiences can finally experience Starmites, and if it’s still not Broadway smash material, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and terrifically performed.

The talented Storrs scores a bulls-eye as both the spirited Eleanor and the disheveled Bizarbara. Reiter is such a bit of a thing that it comes as quite a surprise when, in a wow of a performance, she sings and plays Diva every bit as big and brassy as she deserves to be played and sung. Webber makes for a fine romantic hero with a rich and powerful set of pipes. Krottinger, Joyce, and Priour are all three as adorable and as triple-threated as they come. McFarland and puppet lizard are both terrific as Trinkulus, and as was also the case in Urinetown, the USC freshman gets an Act Two number (here it’s “The Cruelty Stomp”) which stops the show, particularly with Edlund’s jazzy ensemble choreography backing him up. The four Banshees (Esposito, Nelson, Perlman, and Sandler) are every bit as fun to watch as their puppet incarnations and bursting with talent.

Even a non-comic book lover like this reviewer enjoyed Stuart Ross and Barry Keating’s silly, campy book and Keating’s often melodic and catchy songs and clever lyrics, especially under the musical direction of wunderkind Michael Alfera (who could easily be a Starmite himself). The show’s three piece band (Alfera and Chris Myers on synthesizers and Chris Payne on drums) sounds like a veritable orchestra’s worth of instruments.

Scenic designer Edlund’s bedroom set lights up in all sorts of vivid intergalactic ways, aided by Phil Kong’s flashy lighting. Lili Fuller’s colorful costumes are fun and imaginative as can be. Both kids and adults will love Jessica Dalva’s delightful puppet designs. Sean Kranz’s sound design insures that we hear the unmiked singers, and adds nice otherworldly effects. Thumbs up too to assistant director/puppet captain Greta McAnany, prop designer Danielle Buerli, makeup and hair designer Bernadette Anne Tyra, and stage manager Melissa Trupp.

Starmites is probably not for everyone. Those in search of high-minded art, for example, would probably do better to attend the opera. On the other hand, anyone who’s not yet lost their ability to let their imaginations run wild will likely pick Starmites over Wagner or Verdi. Besides, a ticket to Starmites is a lot cheaper than a seat at the opera, and a lot more fun as well.

The Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
April 24, 2010
Photos: Ashley Wright

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