BY CURT HOLMAN / FOR THE AJC
“He can kill a man with a Popsicle from a thousand miles away,” says a lyric in the song “When the King Returns” from “King of Pops: A Post-Apocalyptic Musical.” With echoes of Johnny Cash, the song by actor/playwright Mike Schatz lays out the legend of the King of Pops.
You may know the Atlanta-based purveyor of beloved frozen pops with such flavors as chocolate sea salt and strawberry lemonade, but Dad’s Garage Theatre’s world premiere musical presents King of Pops’ origin story as a fanciful tale about following your bliss, with occasional action scenes.
For several years, comedy-oriented Dad’s Garage Theatre and the King of Pops’ headquarters were neighbors in Inman Park. Schatz met King of Pops co-founder and CEO Steven Carse in 2010 when recording a remote segment for the theater’s podcast, Dad’s Garage Radio.
Seeing Carse sell frozen pops and mingle with customers gave Schatz the idea for a musical.
Carse had launched King of Pops in 2010, after being laid off from his data analyst job at insurance corporation AIG in 2008. He’d fallen in love with paletas — Mexican fruit frozen pops — when visiting his brother, an anthropologist doing research in Central America.
“As much as I would like to think that I knew it would be a success, I just thought it would be a simple business: get good fruit and make the product,” says Carse, 31. “Looking back, a lot of breaks fell our way.”
Carse feels King of Pops benefited from lucky timing, its introduction coinciding with the booming popularity of food trucks and farmers markets, plus the simple appeal of frozen treats. The company’s popularity has led to branches in Athens, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
The downside? “Keeping things frozen is a never-ending battle,” Carse says.
Schatz says that his musical version strays drastically from Carse’s actual career, with battles that prove much more literal. “Once he leaves AIG and starts doing his own thing, he’s adopted by the food truck underground, who are kind of the Guardians of the Galaxy of Atlanta.” In the musical, the King of Pops faces an archnemesis called the Ice Queen of Cones who transforms the frozen dessert market into an apocalyptic landscape.
Awesome Inc., the Atlanta production company that created the hit viral video “Too Many Cooks,” is providing clips of animated frozen pops that serve as a Greek chorus in the show.
Schatz previously wrote and starred in two small, deeply personal Dad’s Garage plays about his addictions and afflictions, “VIP Room” and “Apnea.” “King of Pops” marks the first time he’s written a large-scale show, let alone a musical.
“The songs are connected (musically), but in very different genres,” he says. “For the villains, the songs have a metal feel. Some songs have a traditional musical style, while others are more folksy-Americana, like Wilco.”
Carse’s involvement was just the initial interviews, leaving the show’s creative aspects fully in the hands of Schatz, director Tom Rittenhouse and the Dad’s Garage team.
Chris Rittelmeyer, who plays Steven Carse on stage, admits that he’s yet to meet the real King of Pops. “Mike worked hard to put elements of the real Steven into the character Steven — his earnestness, his optimistic and entrepreneurial spirit — and I’m trying to let those characteristics come through,” says the actor.
Dad’s Garage has been in a state of flux since July 2013, when its original playhouse was sold to developers. Since then, 7 Stages has served as Dad’s temporary home and base for fundraising, including last year’s successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for its new permanent home, a church in the Old Fourth Ward.
Atlanta Metropolitan Christian Church will occupy that space until early 2016. Then, Dad’s will renovate the space, and it’s currently raising more money for improvements such as an elevator and professional theater lighting, says communications director Matt Terrell.
Terrell estimates the theater will move in by mid-2016.
Schatz acknowledges that the theater’s transition has raised challenges for “King of Pops.” “Our first week of rehearsals was in five different spaces. … We just got into 7 Stages a week ago. Yeah, we felt it. But everyone’s having fun.”
He might even be having too much fun. “I’ve been dancing for the last two weeks since rehearsal started,” says Schatz, who’s also part of the cast. “I don’t remember writing so much dance in the script. It’s killing me.”
Fortunately, Schatz has written a show with built-in refreshments.
A cart will sell pops in the lobby, and King of Pops will even make a flavor specifically for the show.
“King of Pops: A Post-Apocalyptic Musical”
April 23-May 30. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (no show on April 25). $12.50-$22.50. (Pay what you can performance at 8 p.m. May 4.) Dad’s Garage Theatre, 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., Atlanta. 404-523-3141, www.dadsgarage.com.