Also see John's review of Eastland
While Theilen may have been inspired by a building and the milieu of comic book/graphic novel fandom, the story and characters he built around them just don't work. The central figure, Hero Batowski (Erich Bergen), is the aforementioned 28-year-old working in the store with his dad. Though these days he sleeps in late and rarely ventures outside the store and adjacent house he shares with his widowed father, he still has dreams of working as a comic book artist, though his pile of rejection letters has just about snuffed out those hopes. When cousin Kirk (Alex Goodrich) drags him out to grab a few beers he runs into the old high school sweetheartrecently relocated to Milwaukee after ten years in Denverwhom he broke up with right after high school graduation. This is followed by several scenes dealing with Hero's insecurity around women and his hesitancy in calling up his old flame Jane (Heidi Kettenring) to ask for a datean anxiety that might been understandable in general terms, but given his history with Jane seems out of place. The back-story is soon revealed: on the eve of their high school graduation, Hero's parents were in an auto accident that killed his mother and gave permanent disabilities to his father. The loss of his mother sent Hero into a severe depression which caused his breakup with Jane and from which he's never fully recovered. So he's not an ordinary slacker, but a clinically depressed one.
His buds are garden variety losers: the charmingly un-self-aware Kirk, Kirk's 12-year-old brother Nate who imitates Kirk's attempts to appear a Casanova (Jonah Rawitz), regular customers Kyle and Ted (Michael Aaron Lindner and Alex Goldklang), and Jane's comically repressed girlfriend Schmitty (Dara Cameron). The early scenes, though humorously executed by the performers, set up Hero for trouble later on. As directed by David H. Bell, the actors comment on the characters to such an extent that it's hard to care about them when Theilen asks us to empathize later in the story. Are we to take them alland particularly Heroseriously as real, if flawed people, or just as clowns? In fairness, Bell has a disadvantage in staging the show in this particular venue. The Marriott is a huge in-the-round theatre and Bell may have felt the need to direct the cast to play everything very broadly so as to land the jokes to those in the distant back rows and behind the actors' backs. A more intimate house would permit a more subtle and nuanced performance style that might have better suited the piece. Certainly the Marriott, where Theilen is Lead Artistic Director and which enjoys a strong subscriber base, was attractive for creative control and financial reasons, but it's not a good venue for this intimate musical with a smallish cast.
There are a lot of potential paths Hero might take, and Theilen chooses them all. Is Hero a comically likable slacker who learns to grow or a young man dealing with the serious illness of depression? Is there a lesson in the obsession of comic book fans with the modern mythology of superheroes, even as they fail to apply the lessons of those myths, such as the value risk-taking and self-sacrifice, to living their own lives? Or is Hero a parody of comic book storytellingparticularly of that art form's flat expository dialogue that appears even more absurd when spoken aloud. (One particular example: when Jane comes to an epiphany about 10 minutes later than the audience does and exclaims, "Oh no, it's happening again!" we can almost see the bubble over her head). Hero starts and nearly works as gross-out rom-com, but then seems only maudlin when in the second act, it wants us to care about its characters. At that point I couldn't care about them in that way.
Then we get to the question of why this story is told as a musical. If the traditional thinking is that characters start to express themselves through song when their emotions are too great for words alone, Hero is lacking in moments that would justify musicalization on that basis. The songs in Hero include a number of soliloquies in which the characters explain emotions that are already clear to us, so the songs are tiresome intrusions. And if a basic principle of musical theater writing is that the story should concern a protagonist on a great quest, it's tough to generate that sort of emotional power for a character whose quest is trying to get out of bed before noon on a weekday.
The better songs are all in the second act. The second act opener is a comic Karaoke duet for Kirk and Schmitty ("By Our Powers Combined") that shows their growing attraction to each other. There's a love duet for Hero and Jane, "That's My Kryptonite," in which Hero sketches Jane as they sing to an inexplicably bossa-nova beat. (If it sounds like the comic book references in song titles are getting thick, I didn't mention "Lower Your Shield" or "A Vampire's Kiss Means Forever" from the first act). The most effective number, in dramatic terms, is "Better in Here," in which Ted, Kyle, Al and Natethose who at this point in the story have remained in the safety of the comic bookstoreexplain why they avoid interacting with the outside world. There's also a nice "transition" song, "Time Flies By," showing the passage of time and the settling into new routines.
Mahler's score is mostly soft pop-rock, and it's appropriate for the characters and setting, but it becomes monotonous until the second act, when he uses a wider palette. His songs have strong hooks, but he structures most of the numbers similarlytaking a motif and varying it only slightly and predictably through the song. The cumulative effect of this repetitive structuremore problematic in the first act than the secondis tedious. His lyrics are solid, and by including some good jokes and smart cultural references to things like Mike's Hard Lemonade and "brunch at Hardee's," he deserves kudos for writing words the characters would say. Structurally, he keeps the lyrics pretty simple. I don't recall hearing any internal rhymes, and the external ones, though not surprising, are not overly obvious either.
Indeed, Theilen, Mahler and the production earn high marks for creating a community that feels authentic. The cultural references are on target, and the costumes by Nancy Missimi and Erin Wuorenma contain a very Milwaukee-ish mix of Brewers and Packers sports jerseys, while Thomas M. Ryan has provided sets that include replicas of the façade from the actual building that inspired Theilen. It is rare to see a contemporary setting in a musical and thus the freshness of the premise carries Hero over many of its other weaknesses. The production also boasts fine performances throughout its cast. Bergen is a likable presence and strong singer, while Goodrich, Cameron and Rawitz use charm and sharp timing to put over their funny bits. Ms. Kettenring and Don Forston contribute strong vocals to the rather bland characters they've been given. Hero's old flame Jane and his still-grieving father Al are just about saintly, in the tradition of characters like Spiderman's Mary Jane and Peter Parker's Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
It's unclear if the creative team wanted Hero to be comedy or a parable about mythology versus reality. I think they went for both when they needed to choose one. There's probably potential for a strong musical set in a world like the one they give us here, and that's the "Hero" I'm holding out for.
Hero will be performed at the Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, through August 19, 2012. For ticket information, contact the box office at 847-634-0200 or visit www.marriotttheatre.com.