Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Encores! Production of It's A Bird ... It's A Plane ... It's Superman

Our discussion of the 80th anniversary of Doc Savage last week naturally brought up the subject of his successor, Superman.  So it was not without irony that this week Encores! has revived the little-known musical comedy It’s a Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman, which originally debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theater on March 29, 1966.  (The Alvin would be home to a genuine Broadway megahit also based on a comics character in the next decade with Annie.)

The original show had music by Charles Strouse (born 1928) and lyrics by Lee Adams (born 1924), with a book by David Newman (1937-2003) and Robert Benton (born 1932).  Newman would be one of the many collaborators on the first big-budget Superman film starring Christopher Reeve (1952-2004) in 1978, though how much of his material made it into the final film is a question still disputed.  It’s a Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman opened to mostly positive reviews, but was not a box office hit, closing after only 129 performances. 

The original production starred Jack Cassidy (1927-1976) as one of the main antagonists, Max Mencken, as well as Bob Holiday (born 1932) as Superman and Patricia Marand (1934-2008) as Lois Lane.  Cassidy and Marand would be nominated for Tony Awards, as would Michael O'Sullivan, who played the other antagonist.

The show pits Superman against two rivals, the evil Dr. Abner Sedgwick, multiple loser of the Nobel Peace Prize, who seeks to destroy the Man of Steel, and Max Mencken, a Daily Planet columnist who resents the adulation Superman richly deserves.

In a wonderful bit of psychology, Dr. Sedgwick realizes that it is not we who need Superman, but Superman who needs us.  While he is dedicated solely to doing good (as evidenced by his opening number, Doing Good), it is our adulation that the orphan from Krypton secretly craves.

The revival, starring Edward Watts as Superman, Will Swenson as Mencken, Jenny Powers as Lois Lane, David Pittu as Sedgwick and Alli Muazey as Mencken’s secretary, Sydney, will run in New York’s City Center from March 20th to the 24th as part of the Encores! series of musical revivals.  Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994.  City Center has also been recently renovated to an approximation of its original glory, creating a near-perfect experience for musical buffs.

Before looking at the Encores! revival, a word or two about the show itself.  Not every crackerjack musical finds its audience, and this was certainly true of It’s a Bird… The book is witty and the songs are tuneful and fun.  The score was written at a curious time for the Broadway musical: the Great American Songbook was gasping its last, and show tunes were trying to bridge the gap between sophisticated, adult music and the stuff consumed by more demanding teenagers.

Fortunately, Strouse and Adams shot for a hip, jazzy idiom that still had Broadway razzmatazz without descending into sock hop kitsch.  If ever a show cried out for a full-scale revival, it is this one.  Perhaps if the upcoming Superman film, Man of Steel, is a success, some enterprising impresario would consider it.

Encores! has done a fabulous job with the revival, and the loving attention to all things Superman is evident in the City Center lobby itself: man-size screens play the original Max Fleischer Superman animated cartoons, as well as display Superman drawings by celebrated comics artist Curt Swan.  (Watts’ Clark Kent suit is a wonderful evocation of artist Swan’s mid-60s business attire.)

The score was meticulously recreated – originally, roadshows and touring companies used a score considerably scaled down.  Encores! found the original orchestrations, and Rob Berman does a fabulous job with the orchestra.

The show is designed with a distinct Mad Men sensibility; and with the Daily Planet office romances the choice is perfectly sound. (One could only wish for a period Superman film – any period from the 30s to the 60s!)  The direction, by John Rando, maintains a zippy pace and finds just the right note between musical comedy and actual sentiment.

There are several excellent numbers in the First Act, including the show-stopping You’ve Got Possibilities, where Sydney tries to seduce Clark Kent.  Mencken, a Brylcreem-ed narcissist to put any hipster to shame, has a wonderful song of self-adoration with The Woman for the Man; and We Don’t Matter at All, performed by Adam Monley as scientist Jim Morgan, temporary love interest to Lois Lane, is particularly sweet.

Many musicals lose steam with the Second Act, but It’s a Bird… actually improves after the interval.  Mencken sings a gloating song at Superman’s downfall, So Long, Big Guy, and Swenson delivers the number with spirited élan.   His later duet with Pittu’s Sedgwick, You’ve Got What I Need, brought forth riotous applause and Watts’ lament The Strongest Man in the World was alternately sweet, funny, and heartbreaking.  And Mauzey has the best number of the Second Act with Ooh, Do You Love You – handing her the two show-stopping numbers in the musical.

Like most adaptions of comic book superheroes, the only problem with the show is the central character, Superman.  As is often the case, most film and play adaptations cannot really come to grips with the central superhero, and they become mere cyphers.  However, the upside of this is that it often means that the villains and other supporting characters are deliciously over-written and over-played, and the stellar support from Swenson (who is simply magnificent), Pittu and Mauzey (who is pure Broadway dynamite) deliver the goods.

The staging is endlessly inventive.  Rather than trying to create the impossible, they suggest it.  Superman flies in a glorious cardboard cutout while the cast reacts in awe – trust me, it works!  In the Second Act, an entire sequence takes place with cast members standing before comic book panels, complete with dialog boxes.  Needless to say, the show ends with the prophetic words, To Be Continued, and we can only hope.

It’s a Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman is one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had at Encores!, and is a treat for Broadway lovers, Superman fans, or anyone who, at heart, thinks they can fly.

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