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By Brian McKernan
"Mufti" is a word the dictionary defines as "civilian clothes." The York Theatre Company defines the term as "In street clothes without the usual trappings of a large production." Operating out of the 178-seat Theatre at St. Peter's Church (in the Citigroup Center in Manhattan's Midtown East neighborhood), "Musicals in Mufti" is the York Theatre Company's ongoing series of concert revival readings of under-appreciated Broadway musicals. Each show is presented by actors reading from the script, with practically no staging. The cast stands side-by-side in a row, behind music stands, reading their parts and facing the audience as they act and sing. It's not Broadway in terms of production pizzazz, but it is in terms of talent, with actors drawn from Broadway, off-Broadway, and recent films.
From June 15th to 17th, the York Theatre Company's "Musicals in Mufti" series presented It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, and at the Saturday, June 16th matinee performance the role of Perry White was played by the show's world-famous composer Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, Applause). Members of the audience included Superman lyricist Lee Adams and the original Broadway Superman, Bob Holiday.
Photo (right): Bob Holiday with the musical's lyricist Lee Adams (on the left) and composer Charles Strouse. (Their joint credits also include Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, and other award-winning Broadway musicals).
Presented in minimalist fashion as "reader's theatre," this production absorbed the audience's attention right from the start. Like a classic radio drama (complete with narration), this latest revival of the short-lived but much loved 1966 Hal Prince musical filled the mind's eye with vivid images of Metropolis, the Daily Planet newsroom, and Superman's never-ending battle for truth, justice, and his inability to express true love for Lois Lane. Giving life to this grand illusion - comprised in equal parts of endearing Strouse/Adams songs and the late David Newman and Robert Benton's witty script - was a superb cast drawn from such shows as Wicked, Hairspray, Mama Mia, and other Broadway hits playing just a few blocks away. It was all directed to perfection by Stuart Ross, a Superman veteran who also directed the Goodspeed Opera House's elaborate 1991 production of the show.
Chief among the acting talents were: Lea DeLaria as the hilariously evil Dr. Sedgwick (a woman this time around, and as maniacal as any mad scientist the stage or screen has ever presented); Jean Louisa Kelly as the poised, confident, yet conflicted Lois Lane (torn between unrequited love for the Man of Steel and the prospect of settling down with handsome scientist Jim Morgan [wonderfully portrayed by Stan Chandler]); David Rasche as the unscrupulous columnist Max Menken; Shoshana Bean as his long-suffering assistant Sydney; and Cheyenne Jackson as the square-jawed, utterly honest, strapping Superman. His "flying" consisted of an "Up, up, and away!" followed by a stationary pantomime of arms extended out, banking to and fro, and then lifting the binder holding his script and "flying" it away. Walking out of the spotlight with the utmost seriousness, holding his binder aloft as a child would a toy airplane in imaginary flight, Jackson's move was amusingly inventive and quite evocative of super-flight in the best Christopher Reeve fashion.
Every one of the principal characters had one or more signature songs, and each performer rendered them magnificently. In keeping with the modest staging, musical accompaniment consisted of music director Torquil Munro on piano and Larry Lelli on drums.
Two new songs, "Thanks to You" and (after the intermission) "Nuts to You," have been added to the show, both sung by the entire company. "Thanks to You" is (in the opinion of this reviewer) an improvement over "It's Super Nice," which sounds dated to today's ears. Like that now-deleted ditty, "Thanks to You" is sung by Metropolis Institute of Technology students just before Superman's fall from grace. Other new material includes the character La Tete (played with a hilarious French accent by Michael Winther) and his Gallic band of evil Le Cirque rejects. This new band of ethnic bad guys replaces the original 1966 version's oriental stereotypes The Flying Lings and the equally objectionable 1975 ABC-TV version's goofy Italian-American mobsters. Hopefully nobody will be offended this time around by funny Frenchmen.
It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman moved along at a brisk pace, culminating in its climactic scene of Superman shaking off Dr. Sedgwick's debilitating psychoanalysis and settling the bad guys' hash in short order. A new epilogue - written, according to director Ross, by the late David Newman for the 1991 Goodspeed production - has Lois again interested in Superman, but refusing his offer for a flight home. She opts to take a cab instead and replies "call me, we'll do lunch," indicating that Supes will have to finally make an effort to get to know Lois if their romance is to have a future. This is a nice contemporary twist on Lois' traditional role as perpetual damsel in distress. For the audience, the York Theatre Company's "Musicals in Mufti" production of It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman is a nice addition to their great series of staged concert performances of overlooked musicals - and a joy throughout.
Capping the show as the cast took their bows was Cheyenne Jackson's gracious call-out to Bob Holiday, which elicited further applause when Bob rose and waved at the audience. The show was followed by a Q&A between James Morgan, Producing Artistic Director of the York Theatre Company, and Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, Stuart Ross, Torquil Munro, and several members of the extremely talented cast.
Photo (right): The discussion after the performance with (left to right) Katherine Von Till (Guide), Michael Winther (La Tete), Amy Ryder (Metropolis Mayor), Torquil Munro (Music Director), Stuart Ross (Director), Lee Adams (Lyricist), Charles Strouse (Composer), Jean Louisa Kelly (Lois Lane), Lea DeLaria (Dr. Sedgwick), and James Morgan (Producing Artistic Director of the York Theatre Company).
Strouse recalled that securing DC Comics' permission to license its most famous character as a Broadway musical required producers Hal Prince and Ruth Mitchell to place the word Superman at the end of the title, as opposed to the beginning. Titling the show in such a way would, apparently, provide better protection for DC's trademark over time.
Prompted by audience questions, Strouse confirmed the generally held view that the original show's run of only 129 performances was due to the societal craze triggered by the twice-weekly Batman TV series, which premiered just weeks before It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman. The public incorrectly perceived the musical as a campy Batman-style send-up for kids. Matinees were added and packed with parents and children, but evening performances became sparsely attended. Confirming this was one of the many people who greeted Bob Holiday after the Q&A, a woman who stated she had taken her son to the 1966 production no fewer than six times.
Strouse raised the point that It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman was the first musical based on a comic-book character. Now that Spider-Man is headed for Broadway, he noted, perhaps it's time for Superman's big-budget return to the Great White Way. A split-second later Bob Holiday jokingly shouted, "Hey, Charles, do you think I have a shot at getting the part again?"
Another round of audience applause confirmed yet again that Broadway's original Superman will always be the standard against which all future musical superheros are measured.