In theater and other endeavors, boldly going where no one has gone before takes courage and financing. It is easier, and possibly less expensive, but still risky, to boldly go where other people have tried to go but to do it differently. Telling a love story, set to music, involving 1950’s gangs in New York City, based on an Elizabethan play from the 1600’s, is that type of bold risk.
Khan!!! The Musical, A Parody Trek-tacular, book, music and lyrics written by Brent Black, co-conceived with additional material by Alina Morgan, and directed by John Lampe, boldly goes where others have tread but does it with respect and an understanding of the Star Trek canon that is missing in other plays using Star Trek stories. It is based on a story from the original series that was used as the plot for what is considered to be the best Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. It then takes a character from a later Star Trek series and uses him as the guide for a musical interpretation of the movie. The result is, for this critic, a well-acted, well-sung two hours and 15 minutes of solid entertainment. However, I must admit that I am and always will be a dedicated Trekker, and I hope to live long and prosper.
The audience is informed by the android character Data (Julian Manjerico) that they are a virtual audience that he has created to test a musical he has created. Manjerico is the embodiment of Data with all of the quirkiness and naivete of the original. He also plays three other characters making a flawless switch to embody each new character, a difficult job for an actor. Nevertheless, Manjerico’s performance is superb.
Data reviewed hundreds of Earth musicals in the effort to create and produce his show. The musical tells a story of a significant event in the life of Admiral James T. Kirk (Shyaporn Theerakulstit), a famous officer in the star fleet of the United Federation of Planets. It is a story of revenge by a man named Khan (Zachary Kropp), a genetically altered human from Earth, whom Kirk exiled to a remote planet after Khan started and lost a eugenics war on Earth. Kropp is excellent in a campy performance of a character established by Ricardo Montalban but played here like Frank ‘N’ Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The planet Khan was exiled to, with his family and followers, was a verdant planet with abundant resources, but it turned into a forbidding desert world shortly after Kirk sent him there. Theerakulstit does an excellent job with the Kirk character, beautifully adopting the vocal cadence and mannerisms of William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk.
Data introduces the audience to the crew of the USS Enterprise, now under the command of Captain Spock (Max Nusbaum), who was Kirk’s science officer in the original series. Spock is a half-human from the planet Vulcan where the inhabitants are known for their embrace of logic and lack of emotional displays. As Spock, Nussbaum gives us a character with a flat affect but still engages in social interaction without being boring. He also plays a supporting character named Tyrell, who is more of a prop than a critical element, which is not a criticism of Nussbaum, a good actor with a fine singing voice.
Another notable crew member is Sulu, the helmsman, played by Clayton Matthews, who also plays Commander Chekov. Chekov is a supporting character in the reappearance of Khan. Matthews gives an entertaining interpretation of both characters, with Sulu being the best.
Crystal Marie Stewart plays Uhura, the ship’s communication officer, and Dr. Carol Marcus, the former lover of Kirk and the mother of Dr. David Marcus, Kirk’s son. Crystal flawlessly shifts from the vocally high-pithed and energetic Uhuru to the more-scholarly and calm demeanor of Carol Marcus. Her characterization of Uhuru is a sassier version of the original.
While Lindsey M.E. Newton is convincing as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, with a clever Scottish accent, she is not as convincing as a cranky and, at times, hot-headed Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Rounding out the crew is Laura Whittenberger as Saavik, a young woman raised by Spock’s parents. She is a star fleet cadet on the Enterprise for training. Laura fully inhabits the character with all of the confused behavior one would expect from someone who is a coldly logical half-Vulcan and half-Ingenue from the planet Ingenue, a switch from the original for a comedic effect that works. The Ingenue reference allows Laura to smile and exhibit some very un-Vulcan-type behavior.
The music is well-done, with the songs fully integrated into the storyline and lyrics that help define essential elements of the character’s nature and are filled with inside Star Trek references and jokes. For example, when Theerakulstit skillfully sings “Young,” entirely in character as Kirk, we hear Kirk as an older man regretting getting old and no longer able to be the arrogant swashbuckling starship captain of his youth. When we meet Khan for the first time, Kropp sings “My Wrath,” which gives a history of how he came to be in this place and the reason for his extreme anger at Kirk. Although many of the references will be missed by a non-Star Trek audience, the songs are well-constructed, and more importantly, they are sung by a cast that knows how to sing on key and on pitch. While you may not leave the show humming a tune, they are the types of songs that one will return to without getting bored.
The set by Ivey Jenkins-Long is minimalist but in a positive and effective way. Data’s show is set in what is the holodeck of the starship. It is an area that can be programmed to look like anything, which is implied by Jenkins-Long’s design, and the set design works well. The lighting design is an important element in this show, and even with the lighting limitations of the venue Melissa Shawcross delivers lighting that effectively supports the action. Jolene Richardson’s costume design is faithful to the source without being an exact copy. The costuming supports well the character changes. In line with lighting, sound design is a critical element in a musical. Michael Nelson’s sound design and management gives strong support to the flow of the musical.
Khan!!! The Musical, A Parody Trek-tacular (through June 4, 2023)
Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-475-1449 or visit http://www.khaniscoming.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission