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Crusading With a Cape

The Gaslight Theatre does it again with a summer superhero send-up

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Conventional wisdom tells us there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes (unless you're a huge corporation). I, however, have discovered another: Gaslight Theatre's constancy in delivering goofy, cheesy, good-natured, fun-for-all-ages entertainment. You can take it to the bank.

The current installment is Gnatman Returns, which, if you think about it, rhymes with "Batman." A-ha! Yes, summertime seems to require the emergence of superheroes, particularly in our multiplexes. But they have nothing on our Gaslight theatrical enterprise: larger-than-life characters? Check. The battle of good vs. evil? Double check. Amazing special effects? Well, they are amazing, but in a low-tech kind of way.

So what if "Gnatman" doesn't sound much like a superhero's moniker? If you're sold on cashing in on the tall tale of the Caped Crusader, it's way better than some of the alternatives: Fat-man? Naaah. Hat-man? Nope. Dat-man? That would be something else altogether.

So Gnatman it is.

The saga is, shall we say, predictable in shape and content. (Some roles are double-cast, so actors vary depending on the performance; the actors listed here were in the show I attended.) In Mammoth City, Kent Dale (David Fanning) is by day an upstanding business man and a rich good guy. When our story commences, he has just received an award from the mayor (David Orley Nuszkiewicz) for outstanding contributions to the community. But trouble is afoot: A motley crew of oddly costumed characters has it in for the city. There's the Jester (Todd Thompson), the Pelican (Sean MacArthur) and Tiger Lady (Sarah Vanek-Stellmon)—each bearing a rather remarkable similarity in name to Batman's nemeses. They are conspiring to cause great damage to the town and its denizens. Why? Because they are "EEEE-VV-I-LLLL," they declare as they sing and strike a pose for the first of about 75 times during the show.

They are poised to take over City Hall and poison the reservoir or blow up the dam. They blow evil dust (or maybe it's just really bad breath) on the mayor and his lovely assistant (Erin Helm), transforming them into malignant co-conspirators—but not before the mayor has activated the Gnat-light, alerting Gnatman that the Legion of E.V.I.L. (Everything Vile in Life) is poised to overtake Mammoth City. So Dale and Jack Payson (Mike Yarema), his young male companion—a relationship that's never quite explained—transform themselves, chiefly by changing costumes, into Gnatman and Atom, the Teen Marvel, and set about to save the city and defeat the Legion of E.V.I.L.

Saving cities and such is rather hard work, and our duo must overcome various obstacles created by the evil ones. This calls for technologically advanced devices such as the Gnat-Jet, WD-40 and toilet plungers. I don't want to give away the ending and how it comes to be, but let's just say that Mammoth City will live to see another day.

All this tomfoolery takes quite a bit of effort and skill to pull off. Now, these Gaslight guys follow a fairly foolproof formula, and we would be disappointed if they proceeded in any other way, but the specifics of each show require some re-invention. Sometimes, these specifics are successful; other times, not so much. Veteran director and writer Peter Van Slyke's script is workable enough, but this one feels a little lazy. Although repetition is an important part of effective melodrama, one gets the idea that whenever Van Slyke can't come up with some witty banter or comic plot complication, he simply has the good guys declare to the audience their identities with the appropriate conviction in voice and posture ("For I am Gnatman," and, "I am Atom, the Teen Marvel"). The bad guys do the same, thus resulting in the 75 declarations I referred to earlier. Oh, we need to hear it a few times, but c'mon, after a couple of dozen times, it grows tiresome, and even a bit annoying.

The actors are all old hands at this, having studied and practiced the Gaslight Method for years. They're all quite capable, and most bring a tireless energy to the proceedings. They sing and dance and ad-lib and crack each other up just enough for it to be charming.

These folks get the spotlight, but there are a number of other contributors without whom the Gaslight experience would be so much less. Chief among these is musical director Linda Ackermann, who is a viable candidate to replace James Brown as the hardest-working person in show-business. Not only has she supervised the development of the cast's musical efforts; she accompanies them nightly. She also underscores the entire show with suitably plot-signaling and mood-enhancing sound, mostly produced on a synthesizer. Truthfully, the show would be rather naked without her expert embellishment. She also leads a pre-show sing-along with the audience and conducts and accompanies the post-show "olio"—a variety of musical numbers with a different theme for each production. (This time it's a "tribute" to The Gong Show.) She's joined by Jon Westfall alternating with Adam Ackermann on drums, and Blake Matthies alternating with Mike Hebert on guitar. They rock.

Set designer and scenic artist Tom Benson has been with Gaslight from the beginning—more than 35 years. His visual inventions and mastery of the paintbrush contribute immeasurably to any given production's success. He doesn't forget that theater magic doesn't have to be complicated technology. I'd rather see his Gnatman version of a helicopter than the absurdly realistic one "landing" onstage in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon.

So let's hear it for the whole Gaslight company, who consistently delight us with their well-produced tales of heroes and villains, their bottomless baskets of popcorn, and their dependable delivery of one of the best entertainment values in town.

Frankly, I'm not too excited about the death-and-taxes thing. But Gaslight? Count me in.

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