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Review: ‘Superman’ at the Dallas Theater Center

by Jerome Weeks 1 Jul 2010 5:44 PM

A Broadway flop in 1966, the musical, ‘It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman!’ tries to take flight in the Dallas Theater Center’s revival. The trouble is the show’s in a battle with itself.


The Dallas Theater Center has opened a revised version of the 1966 musical, It’s a Bird . . .  It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman. The show originally flopped on Broadway, but in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the Theater Center has poured money and talent into trying to make it fly.

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What’s kept this Superman musical flying all these years — at least in the minds of avid theater fans — has been the music by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. The entire score was hardly perfect, but there are lively, truly classic Broadway show tunes here – both catchy and sophisticated. At heart, for instance, this little chant is a tango.

“We Need Him”:

Much of Strouse’s original score has a light, Latin rhythm. That sound does date Superman, though, by lending it a mid-’60s, Burt Bachrach-ish, bossa nova feel. For this production, Casa Manana music director Eugene Gwozds muted some of it. You can hear the original rhythmic treatments only in the current show’s Entr’acte.

Even so, forty-four years later, the score retains much of its appeal. The real weak point was always Superman‘s original, campy book. We’re talking villainous Chinese acrobats here, angry at this guy who could fly. That’s their entire motivation. And the staging, making this superhero believable, was also key. Director Kevin Moriarty and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa know that for the Theater Center’s ambitious reworking to succeed, we need to care for a flying paragon of virtue. He’s practically invulnerable, he can do just about anything — while lecturing the rest of us about doing good. Easy for him. The Man of Steel can come across like a plaster saint — which is not exactly musical comedy material.

Zakiya Young as Lois Lane and Matt Cavenaugh as Supe. All photos: Brandon Thibodeaux

So the creators have wisely backdated the show, rooting it in 1939, when superheroes and the New Deal were both new. And they’ve given Superman personal troubles as well as the criminal kind. They’ve returned him to his historical setting and the original emotional quandary that his secret identity creates: Clark loves Lois Lane, Lois loves Superman, Superman can’t tell anyone about how he truly feels.

But in the first half-hour, the results of this re-tooling are deadly. Many musicals begin with a rousing overture or production number, something to set the scene and kick off the show’s energy. Superman begins with — a lullaby. A lullaby on Krypton, no less. We already know Superman’s extraterrestrial-to-farmboy background, and nothing deepens it here, certainly not the spunky newsboy-narrator who fills in a lot of exposition (played by the very capable Andrew Keenan-Bolger).

This party finally gets started when bad guy Max Menken shows up. He’s a brilliant billionaire – like Donald Trump: same evil ego, more brains. The late Jack Cassidy originated the role on Broadway, and his son Patrick, who plays Max Menken here, pays homage to his father. He’s got the gleaming grin, the snaky character, the sheer delight in showing he’s the brainiest, most talented guy in the room. Here he is, trying to seduce Lois Lane, played by Zakiya Young.

“You’re the Woman for the Man”:

If Cassidy could hit all his notes, he’d be just about perfect. As it is, he’s still delightful. Jennifer Powers also amps up the show’s energy considerably as the predatory gossip columnist, Sydney Sharp. Her femme fatale character may be a cliché, but Powers brings such moxie to the role — and such vocal talent — she practically crackles.

So how do we ever care for this flying paragon? Simple: He gets taken down a peg, brought to earth. Superman loses his powers and loses at love. This makes him human, and it’s a smart move. We tend to listen to someone who’s going on about truth, justice and the American way if we know they’ve cost him a lot to uphold.

The difficulty seems to be that DC Comics still owns the rights to these characters. And they limited what could be changed or added. Which means, thanks to Moriarty and Aguire-Sacasa, we get some of that historical setting via a newsboy shouting about the Great Depression or Germany’s invasion of Poland.

So World War II has begun. Meanwhile, Superman battles magician-criminals named Cadabra and Kazam.

Jenny Powers as a gossip columnist and Matt Cavenaugh as Clark Kent.

Yes, such kitschy cartoon-types — bankrobbers dressed up as wind-up toys and space cowboys — are meant to be light-hearted and entertaining. And they can be. Julie Johnson turns the Scarlet Widow into a murderous Mae West. But I don’t recall the last time giant wind-up toys were a real menace to society — on par with the Holocaust or the Depression. In such a grim context, the playroom fun curdles a bit.

So here lies the difficulty with hard-wiring together the bright, imaginary worlds of the comic book and the Broadway musical — and giving them both a jolt of reality. People have been adding some reality to the musical since Rodgers and Kern sailed their Showboat. And they’ve been doing the same with the superhero since Stan Lee gave Spider-Man neuroses.

But doing both at once — both the comic book and the musical comedy — that’s a bit of superpowered juggling that, well, no one’s really managed before. (Julie Taymor is going to try it on Broadway next season with Spider-Man. That should prove interesting.)

There is, for example, the entire issue of the show’s look, its staging. How comic-booky can it be without losing touch with the dark reality offered by Moriarty and Aguire-Sacasa? In this regard, the achievement of Beowulf Boritt’s set design hasn’t been fully appreciated. Using a complicated series of sliding and flying black scrims, Boritt permits Moriarty to make instant scene changes. He cross-cuts and isolates in a very cinematic manner. Combine that with the painted drops and you have a flat-ish look that says ‘comic book’ without screaming ‘Zap!” and “Pow!” and “Primary Colors!” at you.

What’s more, the complexity and split-second timing involved are a demonstration of precisely what the new, high-tech Wyly is supposed to provide. Locally, this is a significant advance in stage technology: Sixteen years ago, Richard Hamburger used a smaller-scale version of the very same technique to stage Eric Overmyer’s Dark Rapture at the Kalita Humphreys. It took an army of 15 stagehands to muscle the scenery and they had to trundle it up and down in elevators because of the lack of space. At the Wyly, the whole thing comes off with crackerjack precision. They make it look easy.

But let’s consider another conflicting genre need. A musical comedy pretty much requires dance sequences. In contrast, the superhero world doesn’t offer the most obvious opportunities for hoofing it, especially a big, dazzling production number. Which is why the dance celebration that occurs on the top floor of Menken’s skyscraper feels a little trucked in. The historic period does give choreographer Joel Ferrell the welcome chance to work in period styles. Max Menken’s sharky character combined with Cassidy’s grace almost demand a song-and-dance-man and a softshoe-and-cane showcase for our villain.

But try to imagine our hero dancing. Superman doing a foxtrot? Or trying the Lindy — with an extra long jete over a tall building?

Mind if I drop in? Superman at Max Menken’s top-floor party.

So — back to our story: There’s one element here that might bridge the heartfelt and the historical material, the newsroom banter and the silly cartoon fun: Superman and Lois Lane’s unrequited love. That’s both real and musical-comedy-land. It could lend as much sympathy to Superman’s crusading self as his suffering when he becomes a ‘mere mortal.’ It quite literally connects the comic book hero to something human.

But Zakiya Young and Matt Cavenaugh, who plays Superman, have little chemistry. Cavenaugh is surprisingly stiff and his singing doesn’t really open up until the second act. By then, it’s too little, too late. We need to send in the clown-criminals for the big showdown.

In the end, It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman is a musical whose real battle is with itself, with its own divided nature as comic book and romantic comedy — plus the desire of Moriarty and Aguire-Sacasa to ground all of this in a realistic context. Blending these two genres can be done: Consider the success of the first Iron Man film. We got high-tech, crime-fighting action with an entertaining romantic tension between the male and female leads, Robert Downey, Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow.

But then, in Iron Man,  Downey never had to swing into a fancy dance number. Iron Man wasn’t a musical. And as we’ve seen, that particular stage form adds whole other levels of difficulty.

Superhuman ones.


Historic footnotes and nits being picked:

Aguirre-Sacasa has done his research. I was surprised to hear Menken refer to Superman as a man of Teflon. In 1939? Wasn’t Teflon a ’50s product? Actually, no, it was invented in 1938 and it’d be just like Menken, a cutting-edge scientist-genius, to know about it.

On the other hand, Sydney Sharp refers to “outing” Superman’s secret identity — and I can’t find any reference to that verb before the ’80s and ’90s when ‘outing’ closeted gays became such an issue. But perhaps Aguirre-Sacasa deliberately planted it there as a gay version of all the contemporary relevance that the show’s Depression-New Deal era provides.

But one of the headlines that a newsboy shouts during the show reports Superman’s efforts in helping Howard Hughes with his giant flying boat, the H-4 Hercules — otherwise known as the Spruce Goose. But in this instance, that plane definitely was a World War II project, meaning it didn’t exist in 1939. The Spruce Goose made its one and only flight in 1947.