July 12, 2010: Review of Dallas Theater's Superman Musical

Superman Musical By Mike Curtis.

HOW DO YOU FIX A DATED MUSICAL? YOU DATE IT FURTHER BACK!

That twisted Bizarro logic may not work for Superman's artificial duplicate, but it's a successful master plan for scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. In Dallas, the Dallas Theater Center has put on a "revisal" of the acclaimed 1966 Broadway musical IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMAN! And it works. Me like this show.

Note: It's called a musical, like CAROUSEL. The original 1966 production was a musical comedy. This version has laughs but also shows a respect and a touch of realism for the characters.

In the 1950s, LIL ABNER set the tone on Broadway. Comics could be done live on stage and could even have movie adaptations.

In 1966, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams put their musical comedy version of the Man of Steel's adventures on Broadway. The original production starred Jack Cassidy as Max Mencken, gossip columnist for the DAILY PLANET, who hates Superman (because he gets more press). Simultaneously, mad scientist Abner Sedgwick plots the demise of Superman since he's the world's symbol of goodness. Clark Kent is having trouble getting Lois to notice him, and the Flying Lings acrobatic team joins with the villains - no one will pay to see them fly when they can see Superman fly for free. Together, the villains temporarily demoralize Superman before his love for Lois and doing good returns. The production was featured in the book BEST PLAYS OF 1965-1966 and even had a hit song in "You've Got Possibilities." However, it only ran for 129 performances. One possible reason for the short run was credited to "Bat-Lash" from the Adam West TV show which debuted at the same time.

Superman Musical Now journey 44 years into the future. The Dallas Theater Center decided to put on the play, but wanted a "revisal." With the help of comic book author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and the addition of new songs by Charles Strouse, the production gathered steam. Just as in the book IT'S SUPERMAN by Tom DeHaven, the story was set back in 1939, a time when we were more easily amazed by an alien from another planet. We didn't need our hero lifting a continent to save the world, just flying was enough. Roberto also added several more characters from the Man's of Tomorrow's cast. Lex Luthor would be the main villain, enlisting minor criminals, and arming them with various shades of Kryptonite to try and overcome Superman.

Then something happened. It's all off the record, but this reporter assumes that Warner Brothers, who now controls the Man of Steel's fate, told the producers they could only make use of the characters already in the original script. Notice, I said "assumes." Lots of renaming later, on Friday, June 26th 2010 the sounds of 'DOING GOOD' resounded in downtown Dallas and our hero returned to us.

Warners may have made a colossal error. The new versions of old villains are actually better than their four-color inspirations. If this play goes national and tours, DC may have to pay the producers to use these excellent ensemble cast villains in their comics.

It's actually hard to pin down what puts this version of Superman over with the audience. The sets, involving minimalist props and rear-projected backgrounds, give it the appearance of a 1940s technicolor film. The costumers apparently have super powers of their own, giving grace and style to Lois Lane, while channeling Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND with the outfits the villains affect. The songs - as they did in 1966 and as the additional new songs do, really make the audience's heart leap over tall buildings.

As the curtains part, the audience is transported to the dying planet Krypton, where a scientist and his wife are about to ensure their son survives by placing him into a very Buck Rogers rocket ship. The scene changes to Smallville, where young Clark Kent (Matt Cavenaugh) has just saved the day for his high school football team. Pa Kent instructs his son that carrying a football isn't his destiny - it's "doing good" as a snatch of the song appears. Then we're transported to Metropolis, where Clark and Lois (Zakiya Young) are on the scene as a toy-themed criminal, JACK IN THE BOX, and his henchmen prepare to rob a bank. It's a job for Superman!

Meanwhile, tycoon Max Mencken (Patrick Cassidy) is incensed that for the first time in 15 years, he won't be Metropolis Man of the Year. The honor will go to Superman instead. He instructs his secretary to assemble his guests, the Secret Society of Super Villains, in the basement. There we are introduced to space cowboy JUPITER JAMES, stage magicians KADABRA and KAZAM, bauble-obsessed thief BLACKBIRD, and evil villainess THE SCARLET WIDOW, along with pranking COURT JESTER. He arms them each with different colors of Kryptonite to see if any of them will affect the Man of Tomorrow. And the game is afoot.

Matt Cavenaugh makes a very good point for an understated portrayal of Superman. His hero wears a rather thick material for his 1939 costume, leading one to believe that Superman isn't very muscled, an idea that is thrown out when he appears as farm boy Clark later. This Superman doesn't have to be over the top, his powers allow him to transcend the idea of the comic book hero built like Charles Atlas. This Superman can do anything, but doesn't have to prove it.

Superman Musical Patrick Cassidy reprises his father's role of Max Mencken, and is the man who would be Lex Luthor. Jack Cassidy played the character as an ex-hoofer, and his son does just as well, making a leap onto a table early on that would even make Superman proud. The character was written to exude power and confidence, and Cassidy does this easily. In addition, this version's Max Mencken is also a dangerous menace, a Daddy Warbucks gone bad. Patrick Cassidy handles this part of his character with a power-mad intensity.

Just a note here on father and son playing the same role 44 years apart - Patrick's mother, Shirley Jones, was in attendance and said that Patrick did see his father in the role quite early in life. He must have soaked it in like a sponge, as the role fits him perfectly. One image I will treasure was seeing David Cassidy watching his brother on stage and the look of pride on his face. And at the curtain call, Patrick Cassidy strode to the front of the stage and made a gesture I am sure was to his late father.

Zakiya Young is getting quite a bit of publicity for being the first black Lois Lane. While this is a historic Superman moment, hopefully audiences will focus more on her outstanding performance. White is also black, as seen in the person of Perry White, played by Hassan El-Amin. The point is that power, not race, is what drives most of the characters. The abrasive and caustic edge usually given to Lois is transferred to Sydney Sharp, gossip columnist for the Daily Planet. That leave Ms. Young's Lois as a driven news-hen, who lets nothing stand in her way of getting the story. Just like the title of the comic book, she's also "Superman's friend" who comes to his rescue when needed.

In comic book lore, newsboys were ubiquitous in the 1930s cities. Here, four of them bridge the gaps between scenes beautifully, almost like a Greek chorus. One of these newsies is destined to rise above the rest, and he's Joe Carter, nicknamed Torchy, the "Jimmy OIsen" of this epic. His character is well-performed by Andrew Keenan Bolger, most recently seen on Nick in THE NAKED BROTHERS BAND. He even gets to call Perry White "Chief".

So far, I've held back on the group of criminals Mencken assembles to oppose Superman. They do have their roots in the comics, but are believable as "super villains" for the year 1939. Standouts include: Kent Zimmerman as Jupiter James. Terra Man in the comics was never as engaging or entertaining as Zimmerman is in the role of this space cowboy. Cedric Neal and Matthew J. Kilgore are great thieves. They steal the show with every scene they play as the simultaneously speaking and moving evil magicians Kadabra and Kazam. Based on the 1940s minor annoyances Hocus and Pocus, they are believable as real opponents for the Man of Steel.

Comic book fans in the audience will also have their "inner geek" satisfied. There are references to the bottle city of Kandor and the Fortress of Solitude. Sean Hannigan (now playing Dr. Sedgwick as a helpful associate of Lois Lane) even uses the voice of Phillips Tead (Professor Pepperwinkle on the 1950s TV show) when speaking. New technology allows the audience to experience X-Ray Vision and Super Breath in one scene. Plus, this Superman can not only fly, he can also turn somersaults in mid air!

In one scene, the villain Jack in the Box robs a train with the de-powered Clark Kent on board. When he steals a Superman doll from a young boy, the lad corrects him, stating it's an "action figure." Jack states he is unfamiliar with the term.

Superman Musical What if Superman were real? The only opponent that could give him a challenge would be someone like Patrick Cassidy's Max Mencken. Someone who poses as a benevolent millionaire, yet can turn from nice guy to menace from one breath to the next. I hate to say it, but Patrick Cassidy faced a larger acting challenge than his father did in the same role. Yet he masters it. By the second act, he's still belting out songs, but he's very believable as the only man to take down the Man of Tomorrow. When he dismisses Superman as a "dime store Zeus" Cassidy makes the audience accept it.

And if Superman were real, he would be attracted to a woman who was as super as he was. Zakiya Young is that Lois Lane. She can go undercover for a story and have no fear, yet the actress easily exudes concern for her hero Superman when he loses his power. It's not Superman who conceives a way for him to regain his abilities, it's Lois. Young channels the best of the many film Lois Lanes, and like Noel Neill, she even gets a chance to fly with Superman.

And our real Superman wouldn't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He would be an average person, albeit with powers and abilities far beyond mortal men, changing from Clark Kent to Superman in a storeroom. He would hold himself to a higher ideal, as expressed in his song SUPERMAN'S OATH. His uniform would be sewn from regular cloth, rather than form-fitted latex. As he tells one of the orphans proudly, "My MOM made it!" I've seen every Superman that ever played the part (even had a few as friends) and I believe that Matt Cavenaugh fits the cape as well as the rest of them, and even better than some. His Superman deserves to be on film, for those who may not see this musical.

And if Superman had a secret identity, it would be Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. In the program, he says he bought the soundtrack early in life and made up a story to go with the songs. It's easy to see this in the production. It walks a fine line between drama and musical comedy, and is perhaps best described as a musical drama.

It's rumored that the producers are hoping that this new version will make its way back to Broadway.

Could be. Today's audiences have matured since 1966, and can now handle a singing superhero.

Until that time, get to the Dallas Theater Center faster than a speeding bullet to see IT'S A BIRD, ITS A PLANE, ITS SUPERMAN! It's playing through July 25.

The musical comedy, directed by Kevin Moriarty, runs through July 25, with performances on most days except Mondays. Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Friday's show is pay-what-you-can; tickets go on sale that morning at 10 a.m. and can be purchased in person at the Wyly. All other performances $15 to $86. 214-880-0202. dallastheatercenter.org.

Mike Curtis



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