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Music From a Sparkling Planet

J. Smith-Cameron
in Music From a Sparkling Planet
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When so much of today's "trendy" theater is cynical, how refreshing it is to see a genuinely optimistic, sentimental, openhearted play like Music From a Sparkling Planet. Even more impressive, this is a production of the Drama Dept, a downtown theatrical hotspot. The play's author is none other than the company's artistic director, Douglas Carter Beane, who knows his way around the ultra-cool theater scene; among other plays, he wrote the wickedly sarcastic hit As Bees in Honey Drown for Drama Dept. True, this company also had a hit with its sweetly comic revival of June Moon. But it's one thing to revive a gentle, old comedy, and quite another thing to produce a brand new, contemporary play that uses its considerable wit in the service of the heart.

The plot of Music From a Sparkling Planet centers on three Philadelphia men in search of Tamara Tomorrow (J. Smith-Cameron), who hosted a local TV science fiction cartoon show when they were kids. The play takes place, as befits science fiction, on two planes: While the men look for Tamara in the present day, we see the woman embarking upon her meteoric TV career in 1973.

The three questing buddies are an unlikely trio, linked not by their current lifestyles but by their shared childhood experiences of television. They meet at a bar once a week to forget their complicated adult lives and playfully quiz each other about shows they watched while growing up. Beane's witty dialogue uses their banter about trivia to reveal their characters. Wags (Josh Hamilton) is a lawyer who's being passed over for partner at his firm; he also has a pregnant girlfriend to whom he's afraid to commit. Miller (T. Scott Cunningham) has a male lover who is ill--though not with AIDS, Beane makes sure to tell us. And then there is Hoagie (Ross Gibby), an aging personal trainer who is emotionally closest to the childhood that all the men have supposedly left behind.

There is one thing that these guys agree upon: Tamara Tomorrow was their favorite cartoon show host. They all fell in love with her when they were kids. She was sexy and pretty, but what sealed the relationship was the way that she talked to them: She was the one person in their lives who epitomized the sense that all things were possible. She claimed to be from the future and she spoke, with an air of indisputable confidence, of the great things that were coming in her young audiences' lives. In 1973, she predicted that, by the year 2001, most homes would have their own computers. She also predicted that, by this time, dogs would have full voting rights. Be that as it may, she instilled in her fans a belief in the future. And that is why these three men--teetering on middle age, their lives no longer so full of hope--decide to seek out the personification of their lost youth.

The play cuts back and forth between the lost boys of the present and the Peter Pan who inspired them in the past. Back in 1973, we meet Tamara as a young woman smitten with community theater. A TV producer named Andy (Michael Gaston) comes backstage to congratulate her on her performance in--you guessed it--Peter Pan. He's in a bind; he needs a TV host for a kid's show that starts in a month. She's hesitant. Should she give up the theater for TV? Beane gets plenty of laughs from her innocence. Of course, she acquiesces, and the show soon becomes a local phenomenon. Tamara, however, is a lonely woman who finds comfort in the arms of the married producer. Her own future turns out not to be as bright as the future she predicted for her viewers.

Josh Hamilton, Ross Gibby,
and T. Scott Cunningham
in Music From a Sparkling Planet
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When our heroes finally find the reclusive Tamara, she isn't anything like they thought she'd be. Or is she? Like a glowing TV screen, Beane's play shines with a quiet power and the hope of redemption. Speaking of TV screens, set designer Allen Moyer has fashioned a clever garland of functional television screens around the stage. These screens are used with admirable restraint by the play's director, Mark Brokaw. There is a bit less restraint on hand in some of the segués from 1973 to the present; the structure (Beane) and the direction (Brokaw) turn a little too cutesy as dialogue is sometimes spoken in unison in both time frames.

J. Smith-Cameron gives another sparkling performance as Tamara. If there is one weakness in this fine actress's arsenal of skills, it's her perky voice--but here, that voice becomes an asset. When we meet Tamara in the present, Smith-Cameron puts on a deeper voice that has the brassiness of a Joan Blondell. The characterization is as brilliant as it is different from her breakthrough role in As Bees in Honey Drown. Though the play belongs to her, she receives excellent support from Michael Gaston who, as her boss/lover, gives a performance of many shades and textures. His 28-year transformation from past to present, accomplished through a simple change of posture, is a breathtaking piece of subtle, physical acting.

The three actors who play the lost boys are also excellent. Hamilton is appropriately intense and vulnerable, Cunningham has a deliciously understated attitude, and Gibby displays an openness that makes us forgive his character's lack of sophistication. Music From a Sparkling Planet is like a sweet--or, more accurately, a bittersweet--dream. This show isn't a musical, but it will make your heart sing.


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