By Quinn Rigg
Getting into the holiday season, it’s natural to ponder holiday seasons past. Over the years, each celebration creates another constant, stable platform built off of the one before it. Safety is found in knowing the playbook that tradition formulates. However, Black Button Eyes Productions challenges this notion by the most charming means possible with their stage adaptation of the irreverent cult classic Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, produced as a benefit for Season of Concern.
Molded in the booming digital landscape of the late aughts, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is an internet musical written by Joss Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Zack Whedon. A spin on the archetypal comic book origin story, Dr. Horrible is told from the perspective of a burgeoning villain, vlogging about his aspirations and (more often) his failures. A synopsis of the plot may be found here.
This production is expressly in tune with early internet phenomena. During pre-show and the two intermissions, remixes of — such nostalgia! — “Chocolate Rain,” “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” and “Keyboard Cat” immerse the audience in the era of Dr. Horrible’s inception, which, in turn, slyly complements its premise. Like our own world at the advent of accessible Internet, the plot follows what seems a small novelty morphing into something grander and more sinister. What was comfortably entertaining in a much more innocent time grows more complicated and less predictable by the day.
This subversion and degradation of expectation is woven into the storytelling fabric of the production. Director Ed Rutherford packs this show with bits, gags, and prop-playing shenanigans galore, delicately balanced with gut-wrenching surprise. From kickable dummies, stompable puppets and ray guns, to live video feed, fan clubs, and booty shaking, Rutherford blends hilarious immaturity with the cold hard realities of a society in need of change. The challenge of adapting film to stage is a massive undertaking not idly met by this production. Together with a top-tier production team, Rutherford shapes a multimedia spectacle that’s something rare and valuable in the world of non-Equity theater.
Scenic design by Jeremiah Barr is perfectly hand-crafted comic book kitsch, especially his rendering of Dr. Horrible’s “lair” and vlogging station. Lighting by Liz Cooper elevates and accentuates the detailed set with colorful pallets and clever light placements. From footlights to a glowing title card, Cooper frames this comic panel with an artist’s eye.
The filmic quality of the source material is heavily reliant on projection work, and G. “Max” Maxin IV’s design does not buckle to the pressure of such a feat. With video feed, backgrounds, stylized moving scenes and more, Maxin hits the mark with remarkable efficacy.
Sound design by Robert Hornbostel evokes old-timey sci-fi Foley effects, bringing magic to what would be a silent and decidedly less realized world. Rachel Sypniewski adorns those onstage with true-to-the-film attire with her resourceful costume design.
And, thankfully, those that Sypniewski is attiring are a capable and captivating cast. Kevin Webb stars as the titular Dr. Horrible, and he is deliciously diabolical to watch. From the cartoonishly exaggerated highs and lows of his outbursts, to the sensitive intensity of his resolve, Webb creates a villain fitting of the very best serial publications. In Dr. Horrible’s affections, Stephanie Fongheiser plays Penny, the kind-hearted ingenue seeking to make a difference. At Dr. Horrible’s side, soggy small-time-crime guy “Moist” is portrayed with endearing sincerity and vile hilarity by Joshua Servantez.
Against Dr. Horrible is Tommy Thurston as the headstrong narcissist Captain Hammer. Thurston embodies the character with hilarious gusto; never before has such shameless posturing and relentless bullying been so entertaining; and yet, it is not Captain Hammer, but the enthusiastic and lively ensemble that hammers the final nail into the success of this production. North Homewood, Caitlin Jackson, Josh Kemper, Peter Ruger and Maiko Terazawa are exemplary in their timing, talent, and commitment.
With a show that accepts the villain as the hero, a victory as a loss, and cruelty as humor, Black Button Eyes Productions presents a tantalizing production that is not to be missed. Filled to bursting with charm, one can’t help feeling warmed by the effort, quality, and heart that Dr. Horrible’s cast and crew exhibit. Black Button Eyes proves that comfort can be found in the macabre, and that challenging expectations can be as fun as it is innovative — especially when it comes to theater for a cause.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog plays through November 6th at The Edge Theater, 5451 N Broadway. For tickets or more information, please visit blackbuttoneyes.com.
This authorized fan production benefits Season of Concern.
Photos by Evan Hanover.