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It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Edward Watts and Jenny Powers.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In recent years it's become easier to forget that superhero musicals didn't begin (and end) with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. So for a reminder that they do in fact have a longer history, and one that's at least modestly more illustrious than that current Broadway behemoth might lead you to believe, take a trip to City Center, where the new Encores! production of It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman is playing through Sunday.

No, this is not exactly a classic show. The book (by David Newman and Robert Benton) and the score (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams) eked out merely a 129-performance run the first time around in 1966. And aside from a best-forgotten 1975 TV movie it's most notable for having been rewritten several times without ever, well, flight. Balancing the demands of the source material with audience expectations (which, for reasons of theatrical license we'll get to presently, are especially challenging to meet here) while avoiding the all-out camp the subject unwittingly invites, is a task too much like a chunk of kryptonite for any would-be musical maker.

All of which is to say that, on paper at any rate, It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman is an ideal Encores! offering—especially once you strip away the potentially lackluster book. But even that is not a specific problem as cut down here by Jack Viertel. It tells the expected story of the Man of Steel (Edward Watts), daylighting as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, caught between saving his city of Metropolis and his favored damsel in distress, Lois Lane (Jenny Powers). In the course of living his super life and pursuing his super love, he must deal with Dr. Abner Sedgwick (David Pittu), a mad scientist; Max Mencken (Will Swenson), a Walter Winchell–like columnist obsessed with learning Superman's true identity; Sydney (Alli Mauzey), Max's hot-to-trot secretary; Jim Morgan (Adam Monley), a potential rival for Lois's affections; and, most bizarrely, a team of crime-committing Chinese acrobats named the Flying Lings.

That's right: No Lex Luthor, no Perry White, no Jimmy Olsen... Despite the unavoidable presence of form-fitting blue-and-red tights (Paul Tazewell is the costume consultant), this isn't a recognizable Superman any more than Julie Taymor's original Spider-Man socketed effortlessly into that universe. But that's okay, because it has fun, songs, and whimsy in sufficient quantities to make you forget everything it doesn't have. By the end of the second act, when Superman is sending the Flying Lings flying every which way, while signs reading "Pow, " "Bam," and "Zonk" drop from the flies (in perfect concert with the rest of John Lee Beatty's comic-inspired sets), the evening doesn't feel like it's missing much at all.

Including, for the record, a worthy score. With the exception of the one breakout hit, "You've Got Possibilities" (which Sydney sings in a frustrated seduction attempt on Clark), the songs never quite reach the heights of those Strouse and Adams penned for their other works: You won't find the scintillating bounce of Bye Bye Birdie, the dark invention of Golden Boy, or the glittery brass of Applause. But, especially as orchestrated with primary-color fervor by Eddie Sauter, it nonetheless bears a distinct and delightful sound of its own that seamlessly mates creamy comic book color with solid 1960s swing. And, as rendered by musical director Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra, the atmosphere is one in which the permanently imperiled citizens of Metropolis can believably melt from screaming for aid into doing The Jerk or The Watusi. (Choreographer Joshua Bergasse, in full command of the era, makes sure that's exactly what happens.)

Director John Rando has imparted a reserved euphoria into the proceedings that is 90 percent correct for the laid-back-silly tone the material usually takes. Most of the time, he needs to go just a little further to elicit deeper, longer-lasting laughs; in the case of "You've Got What I Need," the addictive bad-guy duet for Sedgwick and Max, which is performed in front of a drop of metallic-purple streamers for absolutely no reason I could discern, he'd be better off backing off a bit.

A fine cast helps tremendously. Watts is an ideal physical and vocal match for Superman, in addition to being a subtle comedian who can also sell the character's aw-shucks bravado. If Powers is occasionally overly brash, she grants Lois a nice overall balance between "modern woman" and "plot device in danger." Mauzey and Monley have less to do here than ever, but they make the most of their limited scenes. Swenson's smarm and Pittu's impeccable craziness are gleefully right for Max and Sedgwick, and James Saito, Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng, and Scott Weber are finely pitched amazement as the gravity-accosting Lings (even if their only song has been cut).

Perhaps the most impressive thing about It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman, however, is much it doesn't have to do to get off the ground. The only flying is performed by cardboard cutouts; special effects are limited to the Lings' leaps one moment, and Ken Billington's lights depicting a literal electric misstep the next. If Spider-Man shows what's possible with state-of-the-art aerial effects—and how often they can go wrong—this show proved four decades before, and continues to prove, that you just need firm theatrical thinking and writing to truly send the audience up, up, and away.

Encores!: It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman
Through March 24
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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