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Chicago by John Olson

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!
Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

Also see John's review of West Side Story

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!
Jim Rank
Chicago's 2006-07 season has been a veritable year-long Encores series, with such pedigreed but seldom seen musicals as Raisin, Shenandoah, Mack and Mabel, My Favorite Year, The Wiz, Aspects of Love, The Frogs and the last of the season, It's a Bird! It's a Plane!, It's Superman!. As a collaboration between Bye Bye Birdie's Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and Bonnie and Clyde screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman; and an early directorial effort of Harold Prince, it's of historical interest to musical theater fans, but though it has its moments, it's pretty much a museum piece.

True enough, the Man of Steel has never seemed like a character that would sing, but book writers Benton and Newman made the odd choice to create some new characters not in either the comic books or the TV series with George Reeves, and to give them an excessive amount of stage time and an inordinate number of songs. We see less of Superman and Lois Lane than we might expect and more of the likes of Max Mencken, a Daily Planet columnist that finds Superman's notoriety threatening, and Mencken's female assistant Sydney. Mencken was played by Jack Cassidy in the 1966 Broadway production. The only celebrity in the cast, he apparently had enough clout to convince the creative team to fatten up his part. Sydney was played by Linda Lavin, and she got the one semi-hit to come out of the show, "You've Got Possibilities," sung to Clark Kent. A good share of the stage time is given to some traditional show tunes in which Max flirts with Lois ("The Woman for the Man"), Sydney flirts with Clark, ("You've Got Possibilities"), a new character called Jim Morgan flirts with Lois ("We Don't Matter at All") and Max shakes hands on a partnership with another villain in a buddy song ("You've Got What I Need").

Of course, a new Superman story could be expected to have a new villain, but this show has a mess of them, none particularly scary. In addition to Mencken, Superman is a target of Dr. Abner Sedgwick, a scientist who goes sociopathic after losing the Nobel Prize, and a team of Russian acrobats who have trouble getting bookings after the public becomes much more interested in watching Superman fly than seeing the group's airborne maneuvers. There's a running joke in which the acrobats say "Ha!" repeatedly, which I guess must have seemed funny at some time to someone. In the end, Sedgwick's secret weapon against Superman involves not Kryptonite, but psychology. He guilt-trips Superman into giving up his superpowers.

There are a few numbers that illuminate Superman as a character ("Doing Good" and "The Strongest Man in the World"), and the relationship of the citizens to the superhero ("It's Superman" and It's Super Nice"), but we spend more time with charm numbers for the new characters than musicalizing the characters we know. Perry White has just a few lines and Jimmy Olsen doesn't even appear. The resulting mix is an odd stew of parody and formula musical comedy situations and songs, some especially '60s song styles and dances that may have been contemporary when written, but sound like parody now. (There's nothing wrong with that, but are we parodying comic books or the sixties?) The best of the songs are nice enough, but not particularly distinguished. Most interestingly, though, we see the take on Superman as the sweetly modest hero later portrayed in the Christopher Reeve Superman films, the first of which was written later by Benton and Newman together with Mario Puzo.

That said, the Drury Lane production has some charming performances. The perfectly cast Jim Rank as Superman has the sort of super-voice you'd expect from the guy in the red cape, if you ever pictured the super-hero as a singer. Rank perfectly captures the understated humor in the "aw-shucks" nature of Superman and is the same physical type as Reeve. The Jack Cassidy role of Mencken is well-served by the comic timing and solid vocals of Chicago veteran Bernie Yvon. McKinley Carter is in good voice as always and is a competent Lois Lane, but doesn't bring anything unexpected to the part. David Perkovich does what he can with the unfunny part of Dr. Sedgwick, and John Reeger is pretty much wasted as the head Russian acrobat.

It's fun to see Superman fly, of course, and the designers seem to have deliberately chosen some thick and visible wires to revel in the tacky theatricality of it all. The set by Jesse Klug has an appropriately comic book feeling. There are also some projections - front pages of The Daily Planet, and a few mock frames of the comic book including captions in the comic's familiar typeface. The visual designers might have had success with committing to that look more fully. The cast does well enough with the few big production numbers choreographed by Tammy Mader, but the production has a sort of ragged feel to it. If there was a way to bring together all these disparate elements, and I'm not sure there is, Director William Osetek didn't find it.

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! will be performed at the Drury Lane Oakbrook, Oakbrook Terrace, IL through July 29th. Performances are Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., Thursdays at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 6:00 p.m. For reservations, phone 630-530-0111; call Ticketmaster at 312-599-1212 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.drurylaneoakbrook.com.


Photo: Greg Kolack

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-- John Olson



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