Head to the intimate surroundings of Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater this season and you’ll get the chance to explore the wide expanses of space, thanks to Ethan Lipton’s latest musical The Outer Space. Following on from his previous work No Place To Go (which actually transferred to London’s Gate Theatre), it is a jazzy, folksy sci-fi song cycle that explores the idea of sustainable living away from Earth.
It follows a husband and wife who have decided to move to a settlement near Mercury; she’s very keen to get away from the stresses and strains of modern city living, but he’s not so sure. In spite of this he goes along with the idea, buying a Victorian rocket and leaving their old world behind. Colony life doesn’t agree with the husband, however, and he soon develops ‘Space Sadness’ – a not uncommon affliction for the colonists to encounter as they adjust to their new surroundings. With his wife thriving, the husband begins to question whether he should stay in space or return to his old life on Earth.
Dressed in NASA-esque jumpsuits (designed by David Zinn), the creative team are also the performers: Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy and Ian M. Riggs in the band, and writer Ethan Lipton on vocals. The result is a tight team of fantastic musicians who are able to bring Lipton’s world to life with a range of instruments such as saxophone, guitar and bass – fronted by the man himself, both singing and delivering monologues to help tell the story.
The production has the feel of a late-night comedy show in a basement bar, as a result of the surroundings and Lipton’s performance style (slightly reminiscent of Stewart Lee). But this is in no way a bad thing, as it creates an intimacy and understanding between performer and audience that just isn’t possible in most shows. It’s the perfect environment for the wry humour in Lipton’s book to shine.
The story itself is on the more whimsical and absurd side of science fiction, though it still manages to be quite philosophical about the topics it discusses. Fundamentally there’s a “the grass is always greener on the other side” feel to it, as the colonists start to find that life in space comes with its own everyday problems and routines.
Musically, it is a real treat. Lipton and the band are long-time collaborators, which comes through in their effortless performances and ability to fuse a variety of genres (from jazz to folk to blues) to create a sound that’s uniquely theirs. Lipton also has a slight country twang to his voice which adds something extra. The songs are catchy, quirky and a lot of fun, doing more than simply continuing the narration of the story – they help to develop the characters, as well as look at some of the scenarios in more depth (even the sillier ones).
As well as great content, its visual presentation is also brilliant. This is thanks largely to Ben Stanton’s lighting design, which uses colour superbly, but also recognises the powerful effect of minimal lighting in the right circumstances. In addition to costumes, David Zinn is responsible for scenic design – the greenhouse cubes and miniature rockets dotted across the stage are wonderful extras, whose presence isn’t too overpowering.
My verdict? A bizarre but fun sci-fi song cycle that blends comedy and music to great effect – a highly recommended trip to the final frontier.
The Outer Space runs at Joe’s Pub (The Public Theater) until 9 April 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.