It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman!
The words "flop" and "quality" usually aren't frequent companions when it comes to discussing musical theatre. In most cases, a show flops because of a weak score, a shoddy book, or uninspired staging. There are a handful of spectacular musicals (The Golden Apple, the original Candide, Merrily We Roll Along) that are given the title "flop" simply because they closed in the red or failed to charm mass audiences. With only 129 Broadway performances under its belt, the cult musical It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman! comes up often when flop musicals are discussed. In a season that included Mame, Sweet Charity, and Man of La Mancha, it's not surprising that the overtly cheeky Superman didn't catch on with audiences; despite a rave in the The New York Times.
Though it features an often tedious cardboard book by David Newman and Robert Benton (who later collaborated on the screenplay for the blockbuster Christopher Reeve film), Superman features a heavenly score by Bye, Bye, Birdie (which will soon receive a Seattle revival at Village) collaborators Lee Adams and Charles Strouse. While the Newman/Benton treatment is quite limp and generic, the Adams/Strouse tunes are some of the best in the canon. This smart duo often does the work of their sometimes negligent book writers by integrating character into the score. Strouse infuses precise tone and mood into his music. Adams sits his smart lyrics perfectly atop Strouse's bouncy, energetic, and often touching compositions. The perky and jazzy score rarely hits a sour note. Strouse provides some of his most gorgeous melodies to date in the lovely "It's Superman" and the haunting "What I've Always Wanted." Adams contributes some of his wittiest lyrics in "You've Got Possibilities" ("Collar, pure Peoria, that hat, oh no!") and "We Don't Matter at All" ("Oh sure, every hundred years or so, we come up with a Gandhi or a Michelangelo."). Each number is functional and appropriate, making the heavenly cast recording essential listening.
While most treatments of the Man of Steel favor darker tones, this Superman has the flavor of the original comic book and the campy George Reeves television series. Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane are the only recognizable characters in the Newman/Benton book, with a slew of new villains, including a mad scientist, a wannabe Casanova news reporter, and a family of flying acrobats. The shoestring plot is forgiven every time a delicious Adams/Strouse song enters the scene. Though the frequently criticized book tends to lack focus, the work of Adams and Strouse make the flaws instantly forgivable. That irresistible score was on full display this past weekend in Showtunes! Theatre Company's lively concert mounting at Kirkland Performance Center. Once again, this fearless company has successfully spread their love of forgotten musicals. This is a welcome follow-up to their fantastic concert of On the Twentieth Century.
During its limited two-performance run, director David Edward Hughes provided a bright staging full of perfectly timed winks, jaw-dropping showstoppers, and supreme musical theatre nirvana. Hughes gave the material the larger-than-life treatment with hilarious comic book projections, vibrant costumes, and a mostly solid company that clearly loves what they do. We were reminded of a time when musicals were an escape from the harsh reality of the world we live in. Forty years after its premiere, this Superman still allows its viewers to momentarily forget the tense world outside the theatre. Hughes' knack for detail was a highlight, and his solution to Superman's frequent flying is nothing short of genius. The tight direction was aided by Allison Lani Broda's inspired musical staging. Broda's choreography for the opening "We Need Him" sets the stage for a raucous musical evening. Her quirky work is wholly appropriate here. She even gives a nod to Birdie in the swooning "It's Super Nice." With the dusty Golden Age musicals refusing to retire (is there some kind of musical theatre jail where we can send Brigadoon and The Music Man?), this treasure box of a show still has chops. After playing the recording over and over, it was a joy to finally see Superman on the boards. This Superman was also blessed with Mark Rabe's attentive and brisk Musical Direction. Those booming opening notes still produce chills.
With his gigantic voice and enormous presence, Eric Englund was magnificent in the dual roles of Clark Kent and Superman. He held the audience in the palm of his hand from his opening soliloquy "Doing Good" to his closing tour-de-force "Pow, Bam, Zonk!"(another highlight of Broda's choreography). Englund never apologized for the unavoidable cheesiness of the material, infusing his work with a gigantic gusto. His hilarious entrances and exits were pure comic gold.
As mad scientist Dr. Abby Sedgwick (traditionally played by a man), Angie Louise gave a performance full of madness, determination, and just the right touch of diva. She brought down the house with her big number "Revenge." Louise has the comic charm of a Carol Burnett, the devilishness of a Ruth Buzzi, and the soprano belt of a Carolee Carmello. Equally terrific was Sarah Rudinoff as jilted secretary Sydney. In a role originated by the divine Linda Lavin, Rudinoff was simply fantastic in both of her big numbers. Her big, effortless vocals were thrilling as always.
Next to the mesmerizing work of Louise and Rudinoff, Tracy Coe's central Lois Lane was often an afterthought. Though Coe is physically and stylistically perfect, her vocals never embraced the delicious Strouse melodies. With the shadow of original Lois, Patricia Marand, looming over her, Coe's voice is too modern sounding for the material. Coe tended to place her voice on top of the music, often pushing too hard vocally and never fully acting the lyric. Marcus Wolland tackled the role of the villainous Max Mencken, originally played by Jack Cassidy, with fearless gusto and period perfect vocals. While Wolland has buckets of confidence and a smooth crooner sound, his work lacked the polish and focus necessary for a true star turn. Art Anderson was a charmer in the ill-conceived role of Lois' love interest and Laura Abel's Mama Ling expertly channeled the intense camp of drag legends like Divine. The game ensemble was a pleasure throughout, giving Metropolis texture and tone. With composer Strouse in attendance, it is hard to imagine a tastier treat for flop collectors.
Showtunes! Theatre Company has yet again given Seattle audiences a peek at a lost musical worthy of resurrection. The mention of exploding buildings and nuclear explosions are no longer funny today, but the heart of this Superman is still beating strong. As Broadway enters a new era full of commercialism and name recognition, it is refreshing to return to a time where quality and originality truly mattered. Up, up, and away!
Showtunes! Theatre Company continues its 2006-2007 season at Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Ave, Kirkland, WA, with Jerry Herman's Dear World January 20-21, 2007, and Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart's Barnum April 14-15, 2007. For more info go to www.showtunestheatre.org.