So it doesn't have The Flash's efficiency or the full range of Batman's intelligence. But Emerald Man, the new rock musical at 37 Arts playing as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, has enough going for it to convince you that it's pretty darn super nonetheless.
If the comic book heroes that so enamor 15-year-old Duncan (Ben Rauch), the central character in this musical by Janet Cole Valdez (book and lyrics) and Marc Bosserman and Tom Valdez (music), can't rescue him from his familial doldrums, it's not for lack of trying. Duncan's always loved comics, just like his long-ago vanished father, and uses them to imagine his way out of the disadvantaged life he and his mother Linda (Kathleen McCann) are living.
One light at the end of that tunnel - Linda's on-again-off-again flame, the violent biker Big Joe (Christian Whelan) - leads only to more darkness: When Duncan witnesses the abusive Big Joe murder another man, Big Joe threatens him into silence. Duncan runs away to the "safer" streets of distant Los Angeles, where his exposure to the resident artists, prostitutes, and drug dealers convinces him that that's a world he can save. Donning his most prized possession, his father's ring, he transforms himself into his own hero: Emerald Man.
Yes, this is a familiar story: Don Quixote by another name, Man of La Mancha without the Spanish Inquisition. But nothing about this treatment feels forced or false, and it earns its stripes as an amusing and affecting take on Miguel de Cervantes's story. With streetwalker Candy (Jessie Novotny) as his Dulcinea and street artist Jamal (Dashaun Young) as his Sancho, Emerald Man is just as apt a man as Cervantes's creation to work toward fulfilling his own impossible dream.
True, the first half of the show (apparently written in two acts, but is performed with no intermission) is often clunky, and establishing the numerous characters and specific locales would benefit from a lighter expositional touch. But once Big Joe begins tracking down Duncan, who rechristens him as his mortal enemy Dark Rider, the show jolts to nuclear life that doesn't abate until the heartbreaking but inspiring tableau that closes out the story.
Along the way, there's a spate of terrific rock and pop tunes encompassing the majestic (for Rauch's dreams of "Superheroes"), the passive-aggressive ("You Are Not My Dad," a tortured and torturing duet for Duncan and Big Joe), the urgent ("Gimme a Ticket," for an escaping Duncan and later for his worried mother), and even the lovely (two simple, gorgeous ballads, "Angel to Me" and "You Make Me Feel Alive," chart Duncan and Candy's reluctant romance). The real, the fantastic, and the in-between worlds that collide time and time again during the show are all defined through the score in ways that pay appropriate heed to the logic of Cervantes, comic books, and reality.
The show falters primarily in its depiction of Duncan's relationship with Marty (Stephen Graybill), the successful music producer Duncan befriends in L.A., which creates considerably less suspense than the authors seem to think. Big Joe could also be better musicalized; he only comes alive in song in the first-act-finale confrontation that sets the stage for the second act's superhero-supervillain battle to the death. And a scene set in a mental institution, decorated with an unfortunate song called "Little Pink Pills," sounds like a psychedelic castoff from another show that should find its way home post haste.
The performers, forever, should stay firmly in place: McCann's amazing belt and her confliction Duncan and Big Joe give the show its real heart. Whelan is legitimately threatening, while Novotny and Young nicely play both their characters' outer tarnish and the gold waiting to be revealed beneath their skins. LaDonna Burns has a few choice moments as a bag lady who could star in Dreamgirls any day of the week; and if Graybill reads too young for Marty, he gives a warmly avuncular portrayal, and has wonderful chemistry with Rauch.
Only in Rauch does the casting become mildly problematic: While energetic, appealingly innocent, and surprisingly capable of navigating Duncan's difficult songs, he's always too grounded to believably need to escape into the fantasy world of comic books. Rauch looks, sounds, and behaves just the right age, but his thorough well-adjustedness too lightens the dark undertones so crucial to the cumulative emotional punch the show packs by the time it ends.
Director-choreographer Josh Prince otherwise keeps the proceedings precisely balanced between the serious and, well, the comic. This gives the show a consistency and centeredness that mark it as a carefully considered work just in need of a bit more polish to shine its brightest. If the creators can provide that without straying from the path they're already following, the futures for Emerald Man look rosy indeed.