Friday, April 5, 2013

“It's a Bird....It's a Plane...It's Superman” - Soaring High

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Joan Marcus

More than four decades before everyone's favorite wall-crawler debuted on the great white way, another comic book character did the same thing in 1966's It's A Bird...It's a Plane.. It's Superman (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by David Newman and Robert Benton), which ran for 129 performances at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon). Basically forgotten today except by the most avid musical theatre buffs, there is a lot to recommend in this satiric and somewhat kooky look at the Man of Steel and the world that then surrounded him in a vehicle that was recently resurrected for the Encores! series at New York City Center.

The city of Metropolis, like every other major metropolitan locale, is awash with crime, but evildoers are kept at bay thanks to the never-ending efforts of Superman (Edward Watts), an indestructible - as the audience is continually reminded - visitor from another planet. In his guise as the meek and mild Clark Kent (Watts), a reporter for the newspaper The Daily Planet, Superman keeps one eye out for trouble and one on reporter Lois Lane (Jenny Powers), who has a habit of getting into danger. Lois is madly in love with Superman and Superman is in love with her, though our hero can't reveal his feelings, his mission of "doing good" which is also his mantra and motto, getting in the way of him having any kind of personal life. There's also the pesky question of whether Lois actually loves Superman for himself rather than for his having super powers.

Superman also has to contend with the evil genius Dr. Abner Sedgwick (David Pittu), a ten-time Nobel Prize loser. Also seeking to get the Man of Steel in his crosshairs is the egocentric Max Mencken (Will Swenson), The Daily Planet's gossip columnist, who is determined to discover Superman's identify and reveal it to the world.

Throwing in elements of psychoanalysis and asking if there is such a thing as true altruism in the world; as well as dealing with issues of true love and learning to let go of one's quest for the unobtainable - not to mention a subplot about Communism - the story moves both quickly and satisfyingly. It also helps that the production team is able to pull together an appropriate 1960s feel for the show while lovingly recreating the eye-popping and cartoon world of the Superman comic book; presenting an atmosphere and setting that is both nostalgic and just a bit off-kilter in terms of reality. Great work by scenic consultant John Lee Beatty, as well as by Paul Tazewell on the costumes. The Superman flying effect, using a cardboard cutout, also provides an appropriate touch to the proceedings.

If there is one problem in the production it would be Watts' portrayal of the title character, who comes off as perhaps a bit too square and also rather naive in the ways of the world. The last being something Superman never was in any of his incarnations. While the character's somewhat stilted speeches come off well, his more intimate moments do not - the show not being able to effectively humanize a character who by definition is not human. Watts' song "The Strongest Man in the World" for example, which is supposed to show the angst and pain of the character instead provokes laughs. It would also have helped had there been a bigger difference between the Clark Kent and Superman personas than was shown on stage.

Other than this one issue, the entire cast works pretty much perfectly. Powers makes a wonderful Lois Lane, combining romantic infatuation with intelligence and a talent for getting into trouble, yet also eagerly exploring the possibility of a relationship that has nothing to do whatsoever with Superman. Powers also has a very good singing voice and is nicely endearing in such numbers as the ballad "It's Superman," as well as the comic duet "We Don't Matter At All". The latter in which she shares the stage with Adam Monley, who plays a technician at a the Metropolis Institute of Technology.

Swenson is a hoot at the scenery-chewing Max. A fellow who thinks he's God's gift to woman, he has excellent chemistry with his various co-stars and does well in several musical numbers such as "You've Got What I Need" - a hilarious bromantic turn with Pittu; "The Woman For The Man" - which matches him with Powers; and "Ooh, Do You Love You!", where he plays a non-singing straight man to his warbling assistant Sydney (Alli Mauzey). Mauzey meanwhile, turns in a performance that would qualify her for a Tony nomination for Best Supporting Actress had the show been playing Broadway. In addition to having letter prefect comedic timing, she steals the show with the song "You've Got Possibilities," where she tries to get Clark to unbend a bit.

Chewing the scenery in sometimes wild abandon, Pittu offers a deliciously over the top portrayal of a mad scientist, or at least one with some serious ego issues. The character being motivated solely by revenge, which is also the title of a song Pittu hilariously delivers. It's a testament to the actor's ability that he makes this character both one the audience loves to hate, while at the same time giving him a bit of an woebegone quality.

The score by Strouse and Adams is quite enjoyable, offering a nice mix of fast and slow numbers, with a few period pieces tossed in, including the title tune. Also offered are at least a few hummable songs, an increasing rarity on Broadway these days. The orchestrations are wonderfully done and the Encores! Orchestra, under the music direction and baton of Rob Berman is superb.

Special commendation must also go to the strong choreographic work by Joshua Bergasse and the acrobatics of The Flying Lings (Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng, Scott Webber), a group of individuals who ostensibly turn to crime to take revenge on the Man of Steel, but who, like their boss (James Saito), have a more nefarious purpose than simple payback. Except for the problem concerning the characterizations of Superman and Clark Kent, John Rando's direction works very well, Rando having a mostly firm grasp on the material.

Its a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman is a welcome addition to the Encores! repertoire, showing the piece to be one of those forgotten tuners which deserves a second look. In an era where musicals that are filled with meanings, messages and overlong preaching, it's nice to see something a bit more simple, clean and just plain fun - and clocking it at a scant two hours, it all goes by faster than a speeding bullet.

It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman

Featuring: Edward Watts (Superman/Clark Ken), Will Swenson (Max Mencken), Jenny Powers (Lois Lane), Alli Mauzey (Sydney), David Pittu (Dr. Abner Sedgwick), Adam Monley (Jim Morgan), James Saito (Father Ling), Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng, Scott Webber (The Flying Lings), Wendi Bergamini, Ward Billeisen, Sam Bolen, Stephen Carrasco, Hannah Florence, Sara Jean Ford, Miles Johnson, Max Kumangai, Samantha Massell, Skye Mattox, Kenita R. Miller, Michael Mindlin, Jessica Lea Patty, David Scott Purdy, Manuel Stark, Charlie Williams, Kirsten Wyatt, Samantha Zack (Ensemble - Policemen, Crooks, College Kids and Various Citizens of Metropolis)

Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Lee Adams
Book by David Newman and Robert Benton
Based Upon the Comic Strip "Superman"
Broadway Production Produced by Harold Prince in association with Ruth Mitchell
Directed for the Broadway Stage by Harold Prince
Scenic Consultant: John Lee Beatty
Costume Consultant: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Nevin Steinberg
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations by Eddie Sauter
General Management Services: Over-Sky Productions
Production Stage Manager: Tripp Phillips
Casting: Jay Binder Casting
Choreography: Joshua Bergasse
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director and Conductor: Rob Berman
Associate Music Director: Joel Fram
Assistant Music Director: Josh Clayton
Fight Captain: Suo Liu
Director: John Rando

Presented by New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center
151 West 55th Street
Performed from March 20-March 24, 2013

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