Review:  "They Came from Way Out There"
Milwaukee Rep Theatre

Lighthearted 'They Came' captures the golden oldies                        Back to News

Journal Sentinel theater critic
Posted: Jan. 15, 2007

Those of us on the leading edge of the baby boom likely recall the novelty hit songs of the 1950s. There was Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater," David Seville's "Witch Doctor" and Dickie Goodman's "The Flying Saucer," among many others.

The new show in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Stackner Cabaret is channeling those golden oldies. "They Came From Way Out There" possesses the same loony logic and nutty spirit that birthed those hits from a half-century ago.

Best described as a musical revue with a plot, "They Came" has its ups and downs. But the bottom line is that it is cute and generally entertaining.

Stackner audiences are already familiar with the creators of this confection. Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner wrote the 2005 hit "Chaps," a hilariously silly little musical built around standard cowboy songs such as "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

Beecham and Hillgartner, who are married to each other, picked up a collaborator, Michael J. Hume, for "They Came," but they have not become any more serious. If anything, they have gotten closer to slipping over the edge of sanity.

The show is based on the play "The Paranormal Review," and it is structured around an election of officers for the Paranormal Society. The group's current president is somewhat reluctantly relinquishing his position of power, and each of the four candidates for president reveals a personal paranormal experience as part of campaigning. That offers plenty of opportunities for the 13 original songs and several reprises that compose "They Came."

A wide range of musical styles, reaching from Gilbert and Sullivan to hip-hop, is united by a common thread: spoofery. Parody is the comic weapon being used here, and most of the numbers inspire at least a chuckle.

It is the revue's wafer-thin plot that grows rather tiresome as the production chugs through its second act.

"They Came" is heavily reliant on its cast to make the material work, and the Rep provides much talent on the small Stackner stage. Each of the five performers makes a substantial contribution.

My favorite is Katherine Strohmaier, who wowed the cabaret's audiences last season playing and sounding like Rosemary Clooney in the show "Blue Rose." She is a long way from Clooney here, portraying a spunky believer in the paranormal with a Broadway-caliber voice and polish. Strohmaier flashes a natural strut and sizzle that is charmingly seductive.

Jill Mari Anderson takes her character in a very different direction, delivering a delightfully wonky paranormalist with just the right amount of clumsy brio. Chip DuFord, Lenny Banovez and Rep veteran Michael Herold create equally strong comic characters.