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If you live in or near the Chicago area, or will be visiting this summer, you could do a lot worse than spending an evening in the Chicago suburbs with a singing Superman and his dancing damsel in distress, Lois (La-La-La) Lane.
"It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman" (hereafter "Superman"), based on the 1966 Broadway musical, is currently being staged at the Drury Lane Theatre, in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois (only about a 30 minute drive out of the Second City). Though it's billed as a dinner theater, thankfully dinner takes place before the play starts, in a separate dining area, and the theater is an actual theater with seats, not tables in the round with wait-staff interrupting the fun.
"Superman" is a musical comedy that ran for a short time at the Alvin Theater in New York's Broadway theater district in the Spring and Summer of 1966. Though the production received mainly favorable notices - including by the New York Times - it never took off with audiences as many theater-goers expected the type of campy zaniness that was, at that time, taking the country by storm with the "Batman" live-action television show and the first round of "Bat-mania". Unlike "Batman", the story wasn't pop-camp but more genuine comedy with a pop psychology bent and a witty musical score.
The original Broadway show starred Jack Cassidy as the immoral Max Menken, Bob Holiday as Clark Kent and Superman, Patricia Marand as Lois Lane, and Linda Lavin as Menken's assistant Sydney (who would later play the title role on television situation comedy "Alice"). "Superman" was produced and directed for the Broadway stage by Harold Prince. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the music and lyrics - they'd previously collaborated on well known musical "Bye Bye Birdie". The story was by writers David Newman and Robert Benton who later were among the plethora of writers who contributed to the screenplay of 1978's "Superman: The Movie". Newman also later collaborated with his wife Leslie on the scripts for 1980's "Superman II" and 1983's "Superman III".
In 1975, a late-night adaptation of the show was staged for ABC-TV though it squeezed the two-hour show into a one-hour TV running time, loaded it up with cheap special effects, and played the entire thing as a camp-fueled mess that many long-time Superman fans consider one of the Man of Steel's low points. Lesley Ann Warren portrayed Lois Lane - she later auditioned for the Lois role in "Superman: The Movie" and portions of her audition are included as special features on the "Superman: The Movie" Special Edition DVD. An unknown actor, David Wilson, played Clark and Superman, though the cast also included such TV staples as Allen Ludden (host of "Password" and late husband of Betty White), David Wayne (the Mad Hatter on "Batman"), Loretta Swit (Hotlips Houlihan on "M*A*S*H"), Al Molinaro (Al Delvecchio on "Happy Days"), and Michael Lembeck (Julie's husband Max Horvath on "One Day at a Time"). If you've only seen the bootleg DVD of this television adaptation that shows up at conventions and the like from time to time, you really haven't seen the show at all.
"Superman" is set in 1960s Metropolis. As the curtain rises, Superman sings proudly of his full-time job of "Doing Good" as he flies (on wires of course - but much more effectively than I expected of local theater) into action to foil a bank robbery. Lois Lane and the people of Metropolis respond in kind about how they feel about Superman in "We Need Him". But Lois begins to realize that her relationship with Superman is centered on the 15 times he's saved her life and that perhaps focusing her romantic affections on the Man of Steel will prove ultimately fruitless. At the same time, a fellow Daily Planet columnist, Max Menken, seethes with hatred toward Superman - because he wants Lois though she only has eyes for Superman and because the Daily Planet's focus on Page-One Superman stories keeps him out of the limelight he craves for himself.
Then, scientist Dr. Abner Sedgwick plots to kill Superman so that he finally gets the scientific recognition he so richly feels he deserves. After Superman survives a nuclear catastrophe arranged by Sedgwick, the warped scientist realizes the only way to really destroy Superman is psychologically. The people of Metropolis may need Superman, he realizes, but Superman needs the adulation of the people of Metropolis just as much in return.
Meanwhile, Clark himself feels a sense of envy as Lois ignores him thinking just of Superman, a point she makes clear in the song "(It's) Superman". But Lois meets Dr. Sedgwick's intern, Jim Morgan, who initially rubs her the wrong way but ultimately makes her consider whether an Earth-bound relationship is what's been missing from her life, as she warbles "What I've Always Wanted".
Ultimately, Menken's own assistant, Sydney, notices Clark Kent and makes her romantic play for him at the Daily Planet as she tugs at his glasses, shirt, and tie while singing "You've Got Possibilities". (This song - as originally sung by Lavin -- was featured in a 2005 advertising campaign involving the Pillsbury Doughboy.)
As Act One comes to a close, Sedgwick sets his plan for "Revenge" in motion by keeping Superman focused on a public ceremony honoring his good deeds so that Superman is unable to stop Sedgwick's accomplices, a jealous group of Russian acrobats - jealous because they can't find work in a city where people see a real flying man every day - from blowing up the Metropolis water tower. (In the original play, the acrobats are a group of Chinese trapeze artists played as offensive stereotypes - the ethnic modification may be motivated by modern political correctness but it actually fits better with a modern sense of who the real bad guys were back in the 'Cold War' 1960s.)
After a brief intermission, the curtain rises on Act Two with Menken enjoying the fruits of Sedgwick's actions with the song "So Long, Big Guy". Superman feels a sense of failure and the people of Metropolis feel betrayed. Superman hides out in Clark Kent's apartment when Lois stops by and he laments his growing insecurity with the song "Strongest Man" while he inadvertently breaks Clark Kent's furniture with his mind's preoccupation with how he's let everyone down.
Finally, Menken and Sedgwick ally themselves together to bring about Superman's final downfall with a plot to uncover Superman's secret identity (using a super-computer called the "Brainiac 7"). Menken tricks assistant Sydney into bringing Superman into a revenge trap at the power plant. Lois is kidnapped. Sedgwick uses pop psychology to convince Superman that he can't really fly.
The cast all converge in a final free-for-all where Superman recovers his mojo, the bad guys get their comeuppance of course, and Lois decides between the human Jim and the superhuman Man of Steel. The final number, clearly influenced by the "Batman" TV show, has the groaner of a title "Pow! Bam! Zonk!"
Other than Lois, Clark, Superman, Perry White, and the Daily Planet (and a brief mention of Krypton), no additional comic book elements figure prominently into the psychologically-driven story. A few times during the production, I thought it wouldn't have necessarily upset the story to have simply changed the name of the mad scientist character from Abner Sedgwick to Lex Luthor. Though Sedgwick's computer, the room-filling state-of-the-art (for the 1960s) system, is called the "Brainiac 7", it has no obvious relationship to space villain Brainiac, Legion of Super-Heroes member Brainiac 5, or Brainiac 12, or Brainiac 13 from the comic books.
The musical's pit orchestra consists of conductor Margaret James (who also doubles on keyboards), plus one musician each on reeds, trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, percussion, and synthesizers. The synthesizer player, curiously enough, shares his last name with an obscure DC hero, Deadman. At times, the musicians are too loud almost drowning out the actors' voices during both spoken dialogue and in the musical numbers themselves.
The cast - a full company of 22 in all - is clearly having a lot of fun with the material. Actor James Rank plays Clark Kent and Superman more in line with the George Reeves interpretation of the character. He does little to distinguish Clark's voice from Superman's, instead using the glasses, tie, and suit to lend its own sense of comedy to the world's worst - and best - disguise. He spends much of the time acting while connected to a flying harness - no easy feat - and he hooks one knee underneath his thigh when flying to create that iconic Superman-in-flight pose. Rank strides the line between being comedic and being ridiculous with the deftness of "Batman" star Adam West.
Actress McKinley Carter is a Lois Lane with a Lesley Ann Warren sensibility to her (stick the Warren audition feature from the "Superman" movie DVD into your player and you'll basically see Carter's performance sans the singing and dancing). She over-acts a bit and is most prone to having her voice drowned out by the pit orchestra. But she does have Lois's sense of adventure and over-reaching, traits integral to virtually every live-action interpretation of the character except for Kate Bosworth's understated performance in last year's "Superman Returns".
Actor Bernie Yvon, who plays Max Menken, is truly the show-stopper. He plays Menken as if he's channeling the theatrical spirit of actor Nathan Lane ("The Producers") - he looks like Lane, he sounds like Lane. He deservedly gets the best genuine laughs in the show and the largest round of applause on the final curtain call.
Sadly, the founder/patriarch of the Drury Lane, Tony De Santis, died on June 6 at the age of 93 after a bout with cancer -- the night before "Superman" opened to the public. Shortly before the curtains came up on opening night, "Superman" Director William Osetek paid a very nice tribute to De Santis comparing his desire for relative anonymity (he never put his own name on any of his theaters) to Clark Kent's desire to blend into the crowd, and his many philanthropic endeavors (including, for more than 50 years, hosting more than 1,000 Catholic nuns from the local region before Christmas for a complimentary night of dinner and theater) as qualities that made him like Superman.
"Superman" began previews May 31, opened to the public (and the press) on June 7, and plays through July 29. Show times are 1:30 PM Wednesdays; 1:30 and 8 PM Thursdays; 8:30 PM Fridays; 5 and 8:30 PM Saturdays; and 2 and 6 PM Sundays. Tickets range in price from $25 to $50 - you can purchase tickets to the show only or in combination with a price-fixed dinner (and Sunday brunch). Group rates are available for groups of 20 or more. For more information about the play or to purchase tickets, call the Drury Lane at (630) 530-0111 or call TicketMaster at (312) 599-1212. You may also visit the Drury Lane website at www.drurylaneoakbrook.com or www.ticketmaster.com.
You really shouldn't be able to call yourself a true Superman fan till you've heard the Man of Steel belt out a tune. Would I recommend travel to Chicago just to see "Superman"? Probably not; the show is revived periodically in local theaters all over the country. But I might recommend it as part of a super-hero themed weekend in the great Second City given that, for the next 13 weeks or so, Chicago is also home base for the "Batman Begins" sequel, "The Dark Knight", which will be filming mostly late at night throughout the remainder of the summer. A vacation that would appeal to almost anyone's inner child: a chance to see the Bat-Tumbler, Christian Bale's Batman, or Heath Ledger's Joker following a night of watching Superman sing and soar; then, perhaps, follow that up with a trip to Chicago's "Six Flags Great America" with its Superman and other DC-themed attractions (including roller coaster "Superman: Ultimate Flight").
Truth, justice, and the American way never sounded so lyrical.